Builders' Union Floats Detailed COVID-19 Safety Measures

By Elise Hansen
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Law360 (April 28, 2020, 5:57 PM EDT) -- A building trades union issued its own guidelines for worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic that include on-site screening and staggering crew shifts, citing a lack of decisive action from federal regulators.

North America's Building Trades Unions and its affiliated research organization, The Center for Construction Research and Training, urged employers on Monday to develop a "comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control plan" with temperature checks and designated COVID-19 officers at job sites.

NABTU, which is an alliance of 14 unions representing building and construction workers, said the national framework is meant to provide a coherent and more proactive standard for worker safety.

"These guidelines aim to prevent disease, disability and death caused by infectious disease exposure in lieu of federal action by [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]," the statement said.

OSHA is the subagency within the Department of Labor that sets and enforces workplace safety rules. The regulator issued guidelines last week suggesting construction workers wear masks and stay 6 feet apart in work trailers, but so far it has declined to issue emergency rules that require employers to adopt infectious disease plans for the workplace.

That stance has drawn fire from some observers, including Democratic lawmakers and labor advocates. NABTU said Monday that it hopes its framework can provide more comprehensive guidance.

"The COVID-19 pandemic clearly underscores the need for and value of a strong, adaptable and multi-purpose exposure control standard to prevent the spread of infectious diseases on U.S. construction sites," NABTU president Sean McGarvey said in a statement. "The industry has been calling for a single national standard, and this is a product we highly recommend for owners, contractors, union members and all of our industry."

While the guidance was prompted by the current pandemic, the measures are meant to be adaptable for other outbreaks of infectious disease, NABTU said.

The suggested measures include worker training on the latest disease control measures, designating a COVID-19 officer for every job site, and screening all workers for fever at the beginning of shifts or if they show signs of illness.

If a worker does become infected, they should be put on sick leave along with any co-workers with whom they've had close contact, NABTU said. Local health departments should be notified, and the area should be disinfected, the policy said. Sick leave should be paid, per the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the group noted.

The measures also include detailed guidance for social distancing in the construction context, such as staggering crew shifts, identifying high-density areas and navigating elevators and personnel hoists.

"In many places across the country, our unions, contractors, and project owners have already implemented these protocols," McGarvey said. "We hope these guidelines will raise the bar to prevent and control infectious threats and improve safety and health management practices for not just construction, but all industries."

A Department of Labor spokesperson on Thursday pushed back on suggestions that OSHA hasn't taken enough action to protect workers and combat the pandemic's spread.

"OSHA has been acting to protect America's workers by providing extensive guidance to employers and workers on COVID-19 response," the spokesperson told Law360. "The agency continues to field and respond to complaints, and will take the steps needed to address unsafe workplaces, including enforcement action, as warranted."

Existing labor laws require employers to provide a workspace that's free from known hazards, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines about COVID-19 safety, the spokesperson noted. Together, those standards give OSHA room to carry out its obligations, the spokesperson said. 

"Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time," the spokesperson said.

Representatives for NABTU did not immediately respond to requests for further comment on Tuesday.

--Additional reporting by Kevin Stawicki and Stephen Cooper. Editing by Amy Rowe.

Update: this story has been updated with a response from the Department of Labor.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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