Respondents to a Construction Dive survey called for an industrywide mandate on when to pause work due to toxic air quality caused by wildfire smoke.
Currently, no law or mandate requires individual contractors to halt work due to poor breathing conditions. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor OSHA have mandates on when outdoor work should cease due to hazardous air quality, though OSHA did advise contractors to monitor conditions and make decisions in the best interest of safety.
But that guidance isn’t enough, according to Shannon Garrett, business owner of Hage Electric & Construction Services, based in The Dalles, Oregon.
“I am very concerned with how some will react when given choices,” wrote Garrett. “If air quality or heat index are unhealthy, we as an industry need to be more concerned with the health of people than the job timelines.”
Nicholas Fragola, head of safety at Colantonio, a Holliston, Massachusetts-based contractor, wrote “just like if a professional sport is canceled due to bad air quality, we should be thinking about the same thing for our own employees.”
Another contractor based in Austin, Texas wrote an industrywide mandate would seem like something “natural” that OSHA should issue for contractors nationwide. Their company currently does not have a policy, but the recent dangerous air in the Northeast “has raised the discussion.”
While smoky conditions remain relatively rare in the Northeast, contractors in the West deal with wildfire aftermath much more frequently. For this reason, Construction Dive also opened the floor to contractors to share how their firms deal with toxic breathing conditions.
For instance, Hage Electric & Construction Services tracks the air quality index from AirNow.gov. The company then recommends workers use a NIOSH N95 mask if the level exceeds a 151 reading, and requires its use when the level is above 251. Garrett added that Hage always provides workers with these NIOSH N95 masks.
“If workers have sensitivity or comorbidities, we try to find indoor jobs with filtered air [for them,]” wrote Garrett. “Of course, if anyone is uncomfortable with working they would be allowed to discontinue working for the day.”
East Coast contractors employed similar precautions earlier this month too. New York City-based Turner Construction deferred activities on certain projects most adversely affected by poor air quality. Charney Cos., another builder based in New York City, also gave the option for workers to take the day off. Skanska adjusted operations to support the health of trade partners on its project sites in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, until OSHA or the Environmental Protection Agency pass an industrywide mandate, worker safety will continue to fall on the shoulders of each individual contractor.
“The health of our workers is our priority,” wrote Garrett. “If for environmental reasons a job is delayed, [it’s] for their health and also for the success of the job. No one works efficiently if they are breathing in smoke.”