Are U.S. construction workers at high risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace? It depends on who you ask, where to look, and what kind of data is (or not) available.
There have been persistent inconsistencies between the available COVID-19 data from the construction industry and experiences reported by contractors on construction sites.
For example, a recent report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that more Construction workers died of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic than any other industry in the state. TIndustry accounted for 12% of all working-age deaths, although construction accounts for only 6.6% of all employees in Colorado.
Other dates show that construction workers were in Texas hospitalization five times more likely with COVID-19 as an employee in other industries; that the construction industry had the second highest number of COVID-19 cases of any industry studied in Utah; and that construction for that sixth highest sum of COVID-19 outbreaks in Washington state.
Another view from the construction site
However, these results appear to contradict reports by contractors and industry that there is insufficient site distribution among construction workers. At an AGC webinar last week, Chris Carson, president of Carson-Mitchell, based in Springfield, Missouri, said that the only time he experienced a delay on his construction sites was not due to an eruption, but instead, as one single superintendent of the virus. Since the site manager was sick, the construction could not go according to plan and cost the company weeks of time.
“As for a job closure itself, no, we haven’t had anything like that since the beginning,” said Carson.
Brett Strassel, a senior executive at Hedrick Brothers Construction, a general contractor based in West Palm Beach, Florida, said he had never heard of construction sites being closed due to infected workers.
“The only time I heard about it was when the owner made this decision, and that was a little earlier in the process in Spring 2020, but I haven’t seen any projects in our area from our known friends or competitors in the industry, which had to be closed due to COVID medical problems, “said Strassel.
No nationwide data
However, the lack of a timely, unified data tracking system for workplace outbreaks at the national level makes it difficult, if not impossible, to track actual COVID-19 cases on construction sites.
While contractors are required to submit OSHA 300 log reports for COVID-19 cases in the workplace, the agency does not publish cumulative data on these reports until November of the following year, which means that the data for 2020 will not be available for another two months. (OSHA has established itself a website to track deaths in the workplace due to COVID-19 that have been inspected by the agency, but these results are not broken down by industry.)
Another challenge is that other data, if available, can tell a contradicting story even with similar data sets.
For example after a report From the National Governors Association, 18 states are reporting specific COVID-19 outbreak data on their websites beyond long-term care. Eight of these settings break down at the branch level, which includes construction.
But even in these states the results are inconclusive.
For example, in Michigan, which is tracking both the Construction and Manufacturing COVID-19 clusters together, the category is taken into account the most common outbreak clusters outside of long-term care facilities, or 39 out of 250 total.
In Illinois, on the other hand, which is tracking construction and manufacturing separately, the numbers turned dramatically: the state has been tracking since July 1st only 10 breakouts under construction, compared to 205 for factories and manufacturing, the highest of any industry in the state.
on a cumulative base in Louisiana, construction caused 12 out of 1,347 nationwide outbreaks, less than 1%, far fewer than the 184 clusters reported for industrial environments.
In North Carolina, there were 20 construction and contractor clusters of 1,969 or just 1%. That was higher than the 10 clusters in agriculture and 11 in food processing, but far lower than the 47 in meat and poultry processing and 124 in processing industries, which accounted for 6.2% of the outbreaks.
In Massachusetts, Industrial environments including construction, Non-food manufacturers, warehouses, and distribution centers made up just 9 infection clusters out of 7,100+, a tiny amount.
In Vermont, Construction and carpentry had six to nine outbreaks in the first year of the pandemic, far fewer than manufacturing which had 22.
In Washington state, similar to Colorado, construction accounted for 8% of all COVID-19 job cases but only about 6% of the working population, suggesting that there were increased rates of COVID-19.
However, data experts point out that kind of over-representation could be because construction workers were leaving their homes every day, automatically risking more exposure than people working remotely during the pandemic.
While it’s difficult to pull a consistent pattern from these numbers, one aspect stands out. In states where construction and manufacturing are pursued together, such as Michigan, the number of cases in construction is higher. In places where they erupted, like Illinois, North Carolina, and Vermont, the construction industry appears to be less.
A model or a cautionary story?
The mixed results pose a broader question for the construction industry, and even for the economy in general, as companies struggle to bring back workers, given the mixed increases this fall: Transmission in the workplace during COVID-19?
For some, the construction industry’s natural inclination to use personal protective equipment like face masks and shields for normal business purposes, as well as always using safety protocols, has contributed to a legitimate claim to the industry’s clean health certificate.
“They are a role model because they do a great job of monitoring and monitoring their websites and their employees, and making sure they are following the guidelines,” said Brian A. Wolf, attorney and partner in the Fort Lauderdale office of Smith, Currie & Hancock, who on Specializes in building law. “I really think they are doing better than any other industry.” He adds, “If you don’t have all of the data points, it’s difficult to criticize the design itself.”
For Laura Guzman, vice president of marketing and communications at XL Construction in Milpitas, California, the numbers quoted tell a different story than what she saw on site.
“Some of the data results seem to contradict our experience as we had a very low incident rate, and luckily for us, that kept our work going,” Guzman said. “I feel like we’ve figured out some things.”
One of those things was a phased plan when conditions changed. For example, when cases fell this summer, the company began opening again, easing mask requirements for vaccinated workers and setting Labor Day as the target date for returning to the office.
But when the delta variant occasionally caused an increase, the company withdrew. “At the moment when it looked like things were going out of joint, we took a deep breath and said, ‘Let’s not push any further. Let’s take the right precautions.’ Because this thing changes from week to week. By now we all know how this thing works. “
For Ezra Laniado, owner of Los Angeles-based commercial contractor Landmark Construction Crew, being able to work outdoors rather than indoors has given construction a head start on other industries.
“I think we have an advantage because when you design a new building everything is outdoors,” said Laniado. “I’m not a doctor, but working indoors really is where you are more at risk.”
However, for other contractors, the construction during COVID-19 was both a model and a warning.
“This is my first pandemic,” said Kyle Peacock, CEO of San Francisco-based Peacock Construction. “I would like to say that building always flies the flag to be incredibly safe, but I think there have been some challenges and people struggled with them.”
At the same time, Peacock said he has not seen any workplace transmission since the pandemic began, using workplace check-in technology in his jobs, which asks workers about symptoms, vaccination status and COVID-19 exposure .
“The interesting thing about the cases that came up on our websites – not broadcasting, but coming to work – was when you asked, ‘How did you come up with this?’ They’d tell you they went to a party with 200 people this weekend, “Peacock said.
However, until more complete data emerges, the real answer will likely remain everyone’s guess.
Matthew Thibault contributed to this report.