Keeping workers safe has taken on new meaning since the pandemic began. While traditional hazard protection requirements remain, the need for infection control added a new level of complexity. Contractors have adjusted work site practices and manufacturers have taken note. The products being used, how they are used and what will be required in the future may have permanently changed.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the unique nature of each new project, said Scott Ketcham, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Construction. Employers assess the potential hazards to which their workers may be exposed and evaluate the risk. They then select, implement and ensure workers use controls to prevent exposure, according to OSHA guidelines. OSHA’s website includes guidance on COVID-19 control and prevention, including exposure risk levels for certain construction work tasks.
When it comes to contact and physical distancing, job hazard analysis can help the contractor determine whether activities require close contact (within 6 feet) between workers and customers, visitors or other members of the public.
“When a job hazard analysis identifies activities with higher COVID-19 exposure risks, and those activities are not essential, consider delaying them until they can be performed safely,” Ketcham said.
Options for those performing indoor construction work—behind closed doors, walls or plastic sheeting as physical barriers—may be used well into this year or beyond, he added. Other controls include adopting safe work practices, staggered work schedules and identifying points where workers are forced to stand together, such as elevators, break areas and hallways.
When respiratory hazards exist and when disposable respirators are used, employers must comply with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard, Ketcham said.
Over the past year plus, many contractors established COVID-19 prevention programs that include steps from telework to flexible schedules to PPE and face coverings.
However, Ketcham said, “Employers should remain alert of changing outbreak conditions, including as they relate to community spread of the virus and testing availability, and implement infection-prevention measures accordingly.”
Fall protection use and training
Training for use of fall protection and other personal protective equipment (PPE) has changed since COVID-19. One example is access to digital training, inspections and services. For instance, international safety products company MSA Safety Inc., Cranberry Township, Pa., now provides training for inspection and the use of its products from its own studio, as well as live meetings. Session topics include fall-protection equipment and inspecting and using it appropriately as well as more formal, controlled training.
“We do lot of things customized for specific customers based on the environment they work in. Fall-protection training is huge,” said Anne Osbourn, MSA marketing manager.
She pointed out that training couldn’t stop during the pandemic, “so we accelerated our ability for virtual training.”
The company already did webcasts, but bringing in the virtual training programs with interactive aspects went live in the second quarter of 2020.
“It needs to be very visual, very interactive, very hands-on,” she said, adding that this is true especially when the trainer and trainee are physically separated.
MSA found that virtual training has had multiple benefits. Some customers expressed that they got more out of the digital version visually from “more up-close detail,” she said. “The feedback on virtual training has exceeded our expectations.”
For these reasons, virtual training is here to stay, said Samantha D’Uva, MSA’s senior manager for product PR and corporate social media.
“We have a talented team in the field and on the ground that will still conduct on-the-job field inspections,” she said, but now a hybrid approach will also be available.
When it comes to the products MSA sells specifically to the electrical construction industry, head, eye, face and fall protection are still in the most demand.
“We’re continuing to see trends in climbing-style helmets” that improve on design, comfort and security, D’Uva said. The products are moving toward low-profile designs, an optimal field of view and comfort for workers.
Since the pandemic, the use of face shielding has adapted to changing requirements as well as comfort. In fact, said Janis Selvey, vice president of sales for Pyramex Safety Products, Piperton, Tenn., the mask requirement has been most customers’ biggest issue on the work site.
Initially, securing mask inventory was the challenge. Once that abated, the next issue was the need for high-quality, anti-fog eyewear. To accommodate customers, Pyramex Safety has expanded its face covering options, Selvey said.
“We added a medical face shield, as well as more options of our multipurpose bands, since people are using those as an alternative to a traditional face mask.” The company also has increased the number of products with its H2MAX anti-fog coating to meet the additional demand.
“We think the COVID-19 situation has created a lot of pop-up manufacturers who brought in product more focused on the medical need for it and not as focused on the industrial safety portion,” she said, adding that goggles and sealed eyewear are examples.
“It is important to confirm that the product meets the applicable standards for the job and that it was not a product brought in hastily during a demand by a company pushing medical needs only,” Selvey said. “Fogging remains an issue and will continue, especially as temperatures rise and humidity increases” during the summer.
It has also become common for a user to wear more than one type of PPE, Selvey added. For example, she poses a few questions every site manager should consider—if a user is required to wear a hard hat, gloves and a high-visibility vest, are all of these things easily taken on and off? Is the hat suspension easily adjustable while wearing gloves? Are the vest pockets accessible while wearing gloves?
Job growth poses some challenges as well. If the pandemic trajectory continues as expected, construction projects will be ramping up in the second half of the year, and workers will be in demand.
Workers may have developed bad habits during the time away. High-volume work may cause additional pressure when it comes to PPE selection, use and safety management for project managers and employers, said Joe Hockett, global segment/vertical marketing leader at 3M, St. Paul, Minn. In fact, 3M is providing a hybrid solution of PPE, virtual and in-person training and support to help ensure safety demands are being met.
Existing safety regulations are now compounded by pandemic-era safety demands, such as social distancing.
“That’s where training is essential. We have a lot of expertise to help all types of job sites adjust to these new conditions,” Hockett said. “As we go back to normal, more hands-on training has to be provided,” along with services online, connecting 3M trainers with the workers on-site. The company aims to provide that information through a variety of virtual tools and digital sources, including certification courses, general fall-protection awareness and on-site training. 3M also offers training tools to assess a job site virtually, said Brian Coleman, vice president of fall, head, eye and face protection in 3M’s Personal Safety Division. These tools include fall-protection fundamentals, harness inspection, working-at-heights awareness and welding demonstrations.
As more projects launch and demand for productivity scales up, Hockett’s advice for PPE safety is to ensure customers work with trusted manufacturers, “people who know the hazards, know the applications; that’s going to be critical.”
“There’s so much information out there. You have to know what a respirator is [and] how to use and wear PPE properly. There’s a lot of misinformation. It helps to have support from someone who knows how to tackle regulations and understands all the dynamics a job site can present,” he said.
He added that the right supplier should also be mindful of new on-site practices.
Respirators and shared tools
Overall, the industry is seeing more attention on PPE than ever before, said Marc Kirsch, product marketing manager for Honeywell International Inc., Charlotte, N.C. In response to the demand for respiratory protection, particularly for healthcare use, Honeywell expanded production of its N95 respirators and invested in new manufacturing operations in the United States.
“We stood up new production lines in just five weeks, which can typically take up to nine months. Today, we have the capability to produce more than 1 billion N95 respirators annually,” Kirsch said.
Honeywell has also introduced innovations to meet health and safety protocols. That includes a new ear plug dispenser treated with an antimicrobial additive to help maintain product cleanliness. Honeywell also released its VeriShield Smart Hearing Solution, which allows safety managers to safely monitor employees’ noise exposure at a distance and ensure a proper level of protection.
There will continue to be a focus on increased compliance with site safety and hygiene protocols, Kirsch said, adding that every shared material or product can be a possible source of microbial contamination.
In general, the pandemic has placed a greater emphasis on PPE’s effectiveness, quality and fit, he said.
“There have been a number of stories about the rise of counterfeit or defective PPE in the marketplace, so customers and end-users want assurance that they have an effective product from a reputable manufacturer” with established safety solutions.
“We all have the same mission: we want people to return home safely at the end of the day,” Hockett said, mentioning that workers can only do that by embracing the safety culture and knowing they’re not alone in that journey.
“Everyone is itching to get back,” Coleman said. “You have this compounding factor with a new normal, so working with people who help navigate that is going to be key.”