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New Study Projects Coronavirus Risk To Construction Workers


Across the U.S., stay-at-home orders have classified construction as nonessential, halting projects in their tracks. In Travis County, Texas, last month, all but public works and affordable housing projects were put on hold until Gov. Greg Abbott withdrew restrictions, allowing most residential and commercial construction to carry on.

During this pandemic, governors and mayors have gone head to head (over and over and over) when it comes to how best to protect their constituents, and in response to Abbott’s decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler commissioned a study that could give construction bosses pause. Making certain assumptions about risk at construction sites, research by the University of Texas found that ongoing construction could triple the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Austin over the next four months.

As with The Washington Post’s animated 'dot' simulations of coronavirus transmission models, the study modeled a number of scenarios and compared them, basing these scenarios on different levels of contact among workers and different numbers of workers permitted on-site. Hospitalizations could increase by 6%, 10% or 30% depending on whether worksite conditions either reduce COVID-19 transmission by half, don’t change anything about on-site transmission or manage to double transmission, respectively, according to the models.

Adler said the study underlines the necessity for stringent health and sanitation standards on job sites, which engage some 50,000 construction workers in the Austin metropolitan area — more than 4% of the city's workforce — not accounting for undocumented workers. 

The highest-risk scenario in the study is based on an assumption that construction job sites have double the transmission risk of a “typical workplace.” This drew criticism from Home Builders Association of Greater Austin President Joe Fowler, who told the Austin American Statesman that construction is one of the most safety-conscious industries in the world. That physical contact on job sites would for any reason double is “wild speculation with no basis in reality,” Fowler told the Statesman.

“And even if you rely on the model, with the safety protocols already in place ... the risk of increased exposure should be less than for your pizza delivery,” he said

According to the Statesman, pandemic provisions mandate that Austin construction workers practice daily health screenings, that shared tools are disinfected before each use, that hand-washing stations are available at each site and that crew sizes are limited to 10 workers on site at a time.

Per the research, these health monitoring, social distancing and sanitization measures at job sites significantly decrease the risk of spreading the virus.

“The study shows that if no safety and health procedures are implemented then our industry is at risk for increasing the spread of the virus,” Associated General Contractors Austin Chapter President Phil Thoden told Construction Drive. "But if the safety and health procedures required by the city and county are being followed, then there’s negligible if any spread of the virus."

More will be revealed in time about the study's accuracy and the efficacy of safety precautions on job sites. Meanwhile, Austin's neighboring community of Pflugerville has just this week given local construction the green light.