Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s March 25 order to resume construction, requiring local authorities to withdraw orders that keeps construction workers safely at home, places profits over people at best, and at worst, is immensely dangerous to workers and the public said the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) in a statement today.
MassCOSH stands in full support of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, a longtime leader of Boston’s construction unions, who has stated that non-essential construction taking place within city boundaries will remain paused until further notice for the good of these workers and the communities they live in.
"The safety and health of construction workers and all residents of Boston is my first priority, and I am not willing to put that at risk as the virus spreads throughout our communities," said Mayor Walsh. "Large gatherings, such as those at construction sites, have been proven to escalate the spread of the virus, and Boston must do everything in its power to flatten the curve and stop the spread of coronavirus."
MassCOSH believes that it is almost impossible, in dense urban settings, to ensure that all workers at construction sites can follow the State’s “Covid-19 Guidelines and Procedures for all Construction Sites and Workers at all Public Works” issued by the Governor. Without being able to take at least these steps, the health and safety of construction workers cannot be guaranteed.
“We support Mayor Walsh’s decision to take every step necessary to keep our communities safe,” said Brian Doherty, General Agent for the Building Trades Unions. This is a worldwide pandemic and our public health community has made clear that social distancing is the only way to combat this virus. We support Mayor Walsh’s decision to take action and to put the health of workers and the public first. During this period away from job sites, we are working with our unions and with our contractor partners to create new COVID-19 specific safety protocols and procedures that will ensure the safest possible work sites, only once a return to work is authorized. We greatly appreciate the Mayor’s leadership and focus on safety first, both for workers and for our communities. We are confident that by working together as a community we will get through this difficult time.”
Furthermore, construction is the most dangerous industry for Bay State workers. In 2019, there were 21 construction worker deaths, accounting for 36% of the 69 Massachusetts workers fatally injured on the job. Governor Baker’s plan to create a “safety stand down” day to refresh workers’ understanding of workplace health and safety protocols is insufficient to prevent injury and death on the job were construction to resume. It is also nearly impossible to implement given that all workers are required to distance themselves from others by a minimum of six feet to prevent infection.
The highly dense cities of Somerville and Cambridge have also stated that construction projects within their boundaries will remain closed, citing their inability to prevent coronavirus exposure on the job. MassCOSH unequivocally agrees that construction worksites should remain closed until health officials state it is safe to reopen them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced federal OSHA agents to inspect private sector workplaces only after there has been a fatality, severe injury or other high hazard situations. While they are taking complaints and providing compliance assistance, enforcement action is limited, leaving workers with little protection should their employers fail to provide adequate personal protections or follow appropriate safety precautions.
However, thanks to the new public sector OSHA law that went into effect in February 2019, the State Department of Labor Standards is taking complaints and will take action should state construction sites and other public sector workplaces fail to meet OSHA standards and state guidelines.
“We are hearing reports from workers on public construction sites that the guidelines the State set out to protect its workers from Covid-19 are not being met,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, MassCOSH Executive Director. “If these simple steps, which may not even be adequate to ensure worker safety, cannot be implemented at public worksites, how can we be sure they are being implemented by the private sector? The best course of action is to stop all non-essential work and ensure workers are being compensated for hours they would have been on the job.”