By JOHN JORDAN
TARRYTOWN—Since the onset of the coronavirus in the U.S. in March 2020, construction crews continued work on jobsites working on infrastructure and real estate development projects. Deemed as “essential business,” the industry quickly adapted with new protocols that kept jobsite infection rates considerably below the infection rate of the general population. More recent, the industry responded to the dramatic surge in COVID cases that began this past October through January 2021 with actions designed to thwart increases in workplace infection rates.
However, with states now warned of a number of variants that are more contagious and are spreading in the U.S.—and the challenge to reach herd immunity thwarted by slow vaccine rollouts coupled with a percentage of the population resistant to getting a vaccine shot—contractors are renewing their commitment to maintain a safe workplace as the new 2021 construction season arrives.
Scattered throughout the Hudson Valley region, more than 40 contracting executives on Feb. 11 participated in an industry-oriented webinar geared for the building and construction trades entitled “COVID-19 The Jobsite: Past, Present and Future.” It was presented via Zoom by two leading employer associations, the Construction Industry Council of Westchester & Hudson Valley, Inc., and the Building Contractors Association of Westchester & The Mid-Hudson Region, Inc.
The program featured attorney Thomas Tripodianos, Esq., and Jeffrey Altholz, M.D., who provided fresh information on New York State COVID-19 job site safety protocols. Also discussed were employee COVID-19 paid-leave laws, best-practice jobsite daily screening procedures, and updates on COVID-19 testing procedures. Mr. Tripodianos and Dr. Altholz also offered perspectives on what the future holds for the trades.
CIC Executive Director John Cooney, Jr., said any recent increases in jobsite cases were likely due to some risk-tolerance jobsite issues. He called on the participating employers to remain vigilant and not fall into “bad habits” by not screening workers at the start of each crew shift. He also pointed to the risk of “letting down our guard,” which he labeled “desensitization to COVID symptoms, and the cold weather.”
Mr. Tripodianos, who is a partner in the law firm Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP of White Plains, NY, noted the law regarding COVID changes almost daily. “The law is actually pretty far behind the science that involves COVID,” he said. “The law is definitely playing catch-up. Since last March, the gap between the law and the science is getting bigger and bigger.” He urged the industry to remain attentive because in some cases the law does not make sense and that changes to the law are in reaction to advances in the science. He raised concerns that the law and science appear to be at odds with one another in the struggle to find a cure for COVID-19.
The legal presentation addressed New York Disability Leave and Federal Sick Leave, which the latter technically expired on Dec. 31, 2020. However, contractors are allowed to voluntarily continue the program, which is funded by tax incentives, through March 31, 2021, he noted.
He stressed that subcontractors on jobsites cannot hand off worker-screening requirements to general contractors. He also advised owners and managers to provide incentives for workers to get vaccinated as a means to facilitate a safer workplace environment.
Because jobsite COVID protocols are changing so quickly, he noted, “The best practical advice I can give you, if not legal advice, is to be thoughtful, be informed and if you act within those parameters you are showing (to regulators), ‘I was doing the best I could under the circumstances.’ That is going to go a long way whether you have the Department of Health, the Department of Labor or OSHA breathing down your back or issuing a violation…”
Dr. Altholz, who is CEO and Medical Director of Clarity Testing Services, Inc., of Tarrytown, NY, buttressed the Zoom presentation with sobering data and facts. Among them, he noted an alarming data points revealing revealed that at least 40% of the pandemic is being spread by asymptomatic individuals. “Essentially nearly half of the pandemic is being driven by people who look and feel perfectly well.”
At press time (Feb. 10), he noted that approximately 10% of New York State residents have had at least one shot of an approved vaccine and 3% were fully vaccinated. In terms of nationwide and statewide vaccination efforts, he related, “If is clear that we have a lot of work yet to do. This is just the beginning of the journey.”
Along with Mr. Cooney of CIC, BCA Executive Director Matt Pepe served as co-host of the hour-long webinar, which covered many industry- and medical-related issues.
Mr. Tripodianos, a partner at Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP is involved in all aspects of construction, labor and real estate law, including suretyship and guarantee, breach of contract, payment claims, mechanic’s liens, delay claims, extra work claims, construction defect claims, management and labor disputes, and residential and commercial transactions. In his practice, he represents buyers, sellers, lenders, developers, general contractors, construction managers, owners, architects, engineers, subcontractors, suppliers, sureties, developers, homeowners and other entities connected with the construction and real estate industry in transactional matters as well as the prosecution and defense of claims in litigation, arbitration, mediation and administrative law hearings.
Dr. Altholz, a graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, is a certified medical review officer (AAMRO), certified medical examiner compliant with FMCSA regulations (CME) and a certified occupational hearing conservationist (CAOHC). He is a leading authority in onsite occupational testing in the Northeast and a consultant to business, industry, labor and government in the field of drug testing and occupational medicine. He established Clarity Testing Services in 1995 with the mission of providing high-quality onsite testing services to comply with Federal DOT drug and alcohol testing regulations. As employers and labor demanded more and more safety and testing services onsite, Clarity responded by developing mobile models for high-quality DOT physicals, respirator medical clearance and certification exams, respirator fit testing, blood lead testing and lead surveillance, firefighter physicals, corporate health screenings, vaccine administration and hearing conservation programs.
Dr. Altholz highlighted the best jobsite protocols to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those include:
- Masks—N95, KN95 or
- Maintaining Social Distance
- Temperature Checks
- Daily Symptom Screening
- Surveillance Testing of
- Contact Tracing
In view of these OSHA guidelines, Dr. Altholz recommended that contractors should consider enhancing their prevention programs. Actions could include assigning or hiring of a workplace coordinator, assessing risk assessment, consideration of high-risk workers, stress communication, education and training, ensure proper isolation and separation of sick employees, enhanced cleaning efforts and not distinguish between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.