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New Public Health Message Underscores Need for Vigilance on Jobsites

In December, SFBCTC leaders convened with industry partners and City staff from the Department of Public Health and Department of Emergency Management at a town hall to discuss the surging numbers of COVID-19 cases on construction jobsites and what to do about it. The Mayor’s Office later explained why construction workers are at high risk and the crucial precautions to prevent infections.

“You are an important part of our city and our economy. Please stay safe, take care of yourself and follow the guidelines,” said Mayor London Breed.

The City’s safety announcement said that most infections are due to viral spread through people’s breath, highlighting that wearing face masks is imperative when within six feet of distance from another person. On construction sites, maintaining six feet of distance can be especially challenging. It can be difficult to wear a face mask when trying to communicate with fellow workers over the loud background noise of heavy machinery. Many jobsites are also enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. The physical exertion associated with construction work can cause larger amounts of virus to be released into the air. In addition to wearing masks and practicing social distancing, public health officials encouraged workers to take meals alone, don’t smoke or vape near others, not occupy small enclosed areas with others, and refrain from carpooling if possible. Opening windows for ventilation can help reduce risk.

“Public officials are really concerned,” said SFBCTC Secretary-Treasurer Rudy Gonzalez. “What’s different is that they’re able to track COVID cases by industry now. It’s flawed in that it doesn’t distinguish residential from commercial or public from private, so in their minds the numbers represent the entire industry. We have to shoulder the unfair burden of being the safest and most proactive, knowing that there are some in the industry who aren’t using PPE and don’t have onsite safety supervisors. So we need to show that we are renewing and redoubling our efforts to keep safety our top priority. The efforts aren’t only for yourself but for everyone on the jobsite and their families.”

Even among Building Trades unions, workers’ risk can vary from trade to trade and jobsite to jobsite depending on conditions. Jose Padilla, Business Manager for Roofers Local 40, said that in addition to following county health orders, a majority of the jobsites have strict safety parameters set by contractors that have kept them safe and open.

“As roofers/waterproofers, even before COVID-19, we have been required to wear respirators or face masks because of some of the materials we use and some of the applications we do, plus our work involves the use of gloves at all times and most of the time even goggles or safety glasses,” said Padilla. “At Local 40 we haven’t had a case where somebody passed away from COVID, and only a couple members have tested positive.”

Ramon Hernandez, Business Manager of Laborers Local 261, a trade that involves a large number of members to often work in close proximity, said that though guidelines are being followed on the jobsites and cases have remained low, he’s concerned about a surge in infections in January due to many people traveling during the holiday season.

“Everybody has to do their part — wear a mask and social distance, not ride in a car together, not eat lunch together and not share water bottles — all the things that should seem pretty basic but we just have to go the extra mile and be that extra careful until this vaccine kicks in and people stop getting sick,” said SFBCTC President Larry Mazzola Jr. “I am concerned that jobsites will get shut down. I know we’re deemed essential, but if enough jobs have multiple positive cases and people start getting sick, jobs will start closing down, and that’s what we’re trying to alleviate by being in front of this with these safety protocols and guidelines.”

Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that construction workers may be part of the third phase of the allocation of COVID-19 vaccines. Construction workers are grouped into an “Other Essential Workers” category consisting of an estimated 57 million people who will be prioritized for early vaccination after other groups such as health care workers, seniors in assisted care facilities, and teachers. While the CDC’s recommendations are non-binding and it’s unclear when the third phase will occur, adoption of the recommendations by state and local jurisdictions would help keep jobsites and communities safer.

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