Many readers have reached out to us since local residents began practicing social distancing with questions about construction sites that remain active despite the threat posed by COVID-19. Here is a timeline of the issue’s status:

March 24, 2020
Mayor Steve Adler issues the City of Austin’s stay-at-home order, temporarily banning all nonessential business activities, including most residential construction. The order exempts construction for projects deemed to be essential, such as those necessary to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

March 27, 2020
The Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) and others in the homebuilding industry publicly protest the city’s ban on residential construction, arguing that local officials “can continue to implement public health and safety practices” while the work goes forward.

March 31, 2020
Governor Greg Abbott issues a statewide order asking Texans not engaged in essential services to stay at home and minimize all social interaction. Under Abbott’s order, all types of construction are considered essential. The Home Builder’s Association of Greater Austin quickly issues a determination that local residential construction may proceed, and Adler conceded the point during a TV-news interview.

April 2, 2020
Travis County issues new guidance for local construction sites requiring the observance of social distancing and other protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Austin/Travis County Health Authority (en Español).

April 6, 2020
The City of Austin’s Development Services Department (DSD) instructs all local construction sites with more than 10 active workers to display new safety guidelines (en Español) and to encourage employees to wear fabric face coverings.

These developments don’t change the legal responsibility employers have when it comes to protecting the health and safety of their workers. Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, they must furnish employees with a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Construction workers may be at a heightened risk for contracting COVID-19, and some are already beginning to speak up about hazards on the job. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard confirmed that during a recent COVID-19 webinar, calling construction “one of our more challenging workplaces” because employees often work in close quarters in poorly ventilated areas.

Howard urges employers to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Encouraging sick workers to stay home
  • Having forepersons ask workers to self-identify symptoms of illnesses (for COVID-19, symptoms include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath)
  • Screening all visitors to the site
  • Performing temperature checks of workers, preferably with no-contact thermometers
  • Continuing toolbox talks, but making sure they’re done with proper physical distancing of six feet between each worker
  • Identifying choke points in buildings under construction and working to resolve them
  • Minimizing worker interaction when equipment or supplies being picked up or delivered
  • Modifying work schedules by staggering shifts, or offering alternate days of work or extra shifts to reduce the number of workers on a site at one time
  • Restricting access to closed or confined spaces
  • Not sharing water bottles
  • Disinfecting shared equipment (e.g., tools and vehicles) before and after each use
  • Providing workers with handwashing stations (if water isn’t available onsite, employers should make hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol readily available)

Unfortunately, local news reports suggest that private labs hired to screen construction workers for illness may lack the necessary equipment. Local officials may need to step up investigation of construction sites in order to strictly enforce site safety, social distancing, and other essential precautions. Otherwise, we fear workers, their families, and the community at large will be put at unnecessary risk.

As Mayor Adler and others have said, we will succeed in our fight against the pandemic only by pulling together as a community. So if you witness a breach of the City of Austin’s stay-at-home order, please report it by calling 311. Your health and the health of your neighbors could depend on it.

Together we can build an Austin for everyone!