COVID-19 Updates and Prevention Measures for the Construction Industry

Q&A with UT Health Austin occupational health expert Edward Bernacki, MD, MPH

Reviewed by: Edward Bernacki, MD, MPH
Written by: Lauryn Feil

The construction industry has experienced varying degrees of impact due to COVID-19. As a result, industry leaders have been forced to address both short-term and long-term business challenges that the construction industry has faced while navigating this new work environment. One, likely long-term, adjustment includes updated workplace safety protocols to mitigate exposure to and the spread of COVID-19.

“There are a lot of things employers can do to drive home to their employees that they are very serious about the disease and that it, in fact, can be controlled,” says Edward Bernacki, MD, MPH, Executive Director of UT Health Austin’s WorkLife Occupational Health, Walk-In, and Travel Clinic, in a talk he delivered to construction industry leaders on July 17, 2020. As many construction industry employees continue to work full time through the pandemic, it’s important for employers to stay as up to date as possible on the latest information and safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to keep their workforce safe and healthy.

Dr. Bernacki offers health safety suggestions for the construction industry and provides insight on COVID-19 transmission, testing, workplace screening, and preventative measures during a Q&A session:

Suggestions

To mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection related to potential respiratory and contact spread, employers should address:

  • Employee education and medical surveillance information
  • Travel guidelines
  • Social distancing methods
  • Disinfection practices and contact spread measures
  • Use of personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, face shields)
  • Ventilation issues
  • Pandemic-specific policies and procedures
  • Industry-specific recommendations

To prevent individuals with potential COVID-19 symptoms from entering the workplace, employers should:

  • Conduct daily/periodic questionnaires and/or temperature measurements: If positive, restrict individuals from workplace and advise evaluation by a healthcare provider, returning to work once cleared by a provider
  • Screen all subcontractors, suppliers, and visitors

Employees who have come in contact with an infected person, especially those with high-risk exposures, should:

  • Be evaluated by a healthcare provider
  • Avoid work for 14 days
  • Return to work only after being cleared by a healthcare provider

To avoid contact between healthy workers and workers with potentially infectious symptoms, sick employees should:

  • Stay home
  • Be evaluated by a healthcare provider
  • Undergo testing if available

According to the latest CDC recommendations, for an employee who has been exposed to or recovered from COVID-19, re-entry into the workplace should consist of one of the following:

  • A least 10 days have passed since they first had symptoms, or 10 days have passed since an initial positive test for COVID-19 if they had no symptoms
  • Must be fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever reducing medication such as acetaminophen or aspirin
  • All other COVID-19 symptoms have improved

Questions and Answers

General disease transmission and testing questions

Q: What are the chances of contracting COVID-19 from someone if you are in contact for less than 15 minutes and more than 6 feet apart?
A: If the person does not have symptoms, or a history of exposure to COVID-19, the risk of contracting the disease is extremely low.

Q: If someone in your house has the virus and you wear a mask, what are the chances of the disease being transmitted?
A: To minimize risk, it’s best if the affected individual self-isolates and all individuals wear masks.

Q: Should an individual quarantine if they have been in contact with someone who has symptoms and is waiting on test results?
A: Yes, if you believe you have experienced a significant exposure to someone with symptoms of COVID-19, you should self-quarantine and then consider also getting tested if that person does test positive.

Q: How accurate is the rapid testing?
A: Rapid, or point-of-care, testing is less accurate than laboratory testing, with higher numbers of false negative results.

Workplace screening and prevention questions

Q: How do we determine if an employee is displaying symptoms of COVID-19 as opposed to having seasonal allergies?
A: It is very difficult to make a diagnosis without a medical evaluation and testing. Refer employees who have symptoms or history of exposure to COVID-19 to a healthcare provider for an assessment and guidance.

Q: How would you recommend we handle employees who have short-term symptoms in line with COVID-19, but recover and have no known exposures? For example, if an employee is sent home based on symptoms, but fully recovers, should we allow them back to work without COVID-19 test results?
A: The best course of action is to refer to a healthcare provider for a medical assessment. The condition may or may not be COVID-19 related. The provider may test to see if the person is shedding the virus and will determine when the person cannot infect others.

It’s important to make sure at least 10 days have passed since exposure and the employee is symptom free for at least 24 hours (based on the latest CDC guidance).

Q: In your opinion, how effective are UV lights on filters for HVAC systems in killing the virus?
A: While the literature supports the use of UV lighting, the transit time of the air subjected to UV light is too short, in my opinion, to reliably inactivate the virus. As one of many steps, it does not hurt, but we shouldn’t assume it renders the air virus free.

Q: If an employee was sent home from work due to illness symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 three days later, do all employees that were around him/her need to get tested as well?
A: If you have an employee who tests positive, it’s a good idea to test anyone who came in contact with that individual 3-5 days prior to symptom onset. They should monitor their symptoms and contact their healthcare provider about getting tested.

Q: Should a 60+-year-old employee with asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] be working remotely?
A: It would be preferable to have them working remotely.

To listen to the full presentation, you can visit here.

Please be aware that the COVID-19 outbreak is a rapidly evolving situation. The details provided in this Q&A are based on information available at the time of development. For the most up-to-date information regarding the virus, please visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus.

About UT Health Austin

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