COVID-19: Should work continue or stop as pandemic sets health and safety challenges for New York’s construction industry?

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An image of workers congregating published by a poster on #StopConstruction

Editor’s note: This story is evolving rapidly, and much could change between the time you read it from when it was written on March 26. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for New York’s construction industry, including questions about whether or how to continue working during the public health emergency.

Emergency regulations that require most non-essential businesses to close have exempted construction work; and job sites for several projects were still active throughout the state as New York Construction Report went to press in late March.

There have been serious problems, however, with workers complaining they are being required to work in tight spaces with inadequate personal protective equipment and washroom facilities. Several workers have complained and some have provided documentary proof of the problems on social media through the hashtag #StopConstruction.

An extensive article in the New York Times has detailed these problems, questioning why building luxury condos could be considered an “essential service”.

These problems are magnified because of New York’s unfortunate status as a serious hot spot within the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals have reached capacity and medical workers, with their own shortage of personal protective equipment, are catching the disease. (Notably, Zimbabwe’s first known death from COVID-19, a local broadcaster in Harare, caught the virus while he was in New York.)

In one instance on March 23, at least 20 carpenters walked off the job site at the Hard Rock Hotel in Manhattan after news was shared about workers who had tested positive for the virus, The New York Times reported.

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NYC construction workers congregating at close distance, an image posted on #StopConstruction

A carpenter on the project on West 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue said workers had been given no extra protective gear.  The site was shut down on March 24 and 25  to be disinfected, the worker said.

“Everyone is coughing and sneezing all the debris we are breathing in on a daily basis,” the carpenter was quoted as saying. “I’m scared to come to work.”

Managers at some sites say they’re doing their best to provide places for workers to wash their hands and keep their distance.

Contingency plans have been implemented at many sites to keep workers safe in the face of the pandemic.

Plaza Construction, a New York-based general contractor and project management firm that is co-ordinating with another organization, Central Consulting & Contracting has no immediate plans to shut down construction job sites or reduce its workforce, according to a company spokesperson.  The companies are working together on initiatives to provide speedy modular construction and retrofit services for hospitals and healthcare facilities affected by COVID-19, and they will not charge management fees for their services.

New guidelines are in place, including social distancing at the company’s offices and job sites, according to a memo the company sent its clients, partners and employees.

“This plan allows for our employees to work remotely using technology platforms that have been built to support remote accessibility and mobility,” the memo states. “Our teams will be joining all meetings via phone and video conferencing, and will remain available to answer any questions or concerns as required.”

Vice-president Mike Pence has asked construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 face masks to local hospitals – and to stop ordering new masks – as the country attempts to supply hospitals with equipment during the coronavirus pandemic, and several businesses have responded.

“We would make one specific request, and that is we would urge construction companies to donate their inventory of N95 masks to your local hospital and forgo additional orders of those industrial masks,” Pence said at an earlier White House briefing on the pandemic.

“Because of what the president asked to be included in legislation moving through the Congress today, those industrial masks that they use on construction sites are perfectly acceptable for health care workers to be protected from a respiratory disease,” he added.

The industrial-strength masks are usually worn by drywall workers and painters to protect themselves from fine airborne particles. An N95 designation means the mask can block at least 95 percent of particles in the air.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s decision in mid-March to construction projects in the city to be shut down for at least two weeks in response to the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in mixed reviews. Several major construction employers and associations say the shut-down is excessive for an essential service, while some workers and unions say the decision is correct, since most construction work is not essential and it is hard to effectively manage social distancing and proper cleanliness on many job sites.

All projects must be stopped and work zones secured, the mayor said during a press conference, with the exception of emergency projects such as roadwork and gas hookups. Boston trade unions supported Walsh’s move, citing health and safety concerns.

“This is a worldwide pandemic and our public health community has made clear that social distancing is the only way to combat this virus,” said Brian Doherty, general agent of Building Trades Unions, an umbrella organization of the city’s unions.

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