Common prevention measures for infectious diseases such as washing hands, disinfecting hands using alcohol rub and ensuring that sick workers remain at home are critical in helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus on construction sites and other work sites, an expert in infectious diseases says.
As concern about the coronavirus grows, Sourceable spoke with Professor Peter Collignon AM, Infectious Disease Physician & Microbiologist at Canberra Hospital and a professor at ANU Medical School, about how workers and employers in construction can protect themselves and others on work sites.
Such questions are important as large construction sites have many people coming and going.
This includes head contractors/head contractor staff, subcontractors, material/equipment suppliers, clients and others.
According to Collignon, the virus itself – formally known as COVID-19 – is an infectious particle which has genetic material that has a coating of protein and also what are known as lipids.
Having originated in China most likely through bats, the virus has now spread to people across many parts of the world.
According to Collignon, the virus spreads through respiratory means and can infect people in two ways.
First, those who have the disease can infect others nearby when they cough or splutter.
Second, where droplets fall within a meter of the person, others can become infected where they touch the surface on which the droplets have fallen and later rub their eyes, nose or mouth.
Rates of complications and death are higher in the case of older people (over 70) and are lower for those of less than 50 years of age.
Collignon says workers and employers should adopt a similar approach toward coronavirus as with other infectious diseases such as colds and influenza.
For individual workers, those with respiratory problems or illness symptoms should avoid going to work or catching public transport.
As well, individuals should keep their distance (more than a meter) from anyone who displays illness symptoms. At home, those who are sick should sleep in separate rooms and use separate bathrooms if possible.
Next, people need to be aware about their hands.
Where possible, touching of faces or mouths should be avoided.
Before going out, hands should be disinfected either through washing or use of alcohol hand rub.
On site, Collignon suggests people carry pocket sized alcohol hand rub containers as washroom facilities may not be readily available. These could be used, for example, where lunch is eaten on site and workers are not able to access hand washing facilities before eating.
For employers and site supervisors, Collignon stresses the need to monitor guidance from state and federal health authorities as well as workplace agencies such as Safe Work Australia.
This should be done constantly as guidance is changing as the situation evolves.
Workers, subcontractor staff or others who display symptoms of being ill should be told to stay home (those on site who display symptoms should be asked to leave).
Likewise, those who have travelled to countries about which health departments are warning should remain offsite for at least two weeks.
Before sending workers overseas, companies should likewise follow up-to-date travel advice on sites such as Smartraveller.
Companies who send workers overseas should also be mindful that these staff may need to spend time in quarantine upon returning where an outbreak occurs.
When on site, workers should be provided with suitable hand sanitation facilities.
This includes water and sinks where possible along with alcohol hand rub.
Asked about the wearing of masks, Collignon again advises workers and employers to follow up-to-date guidance from local health authorities.
Nevertheless, he raises two points of caution.
After taking masks off, workers should wash/decontaminate their hands as these may have picked up contamination from contact with the outside of the mask.
More broadly, overuse of masks should be avoided as this may exacerbate a shortage for those who need them for dust protection.
Finally, Collignon advises employers to remain cautious about ‘reinventing the wheel’ when providing information to staff.
Information provided, he said, should be limited to current recommendations given by local health authorities.
Such guidance should also inform other considerations. These include the maximum size of meetings and whether or not meetings should be held in isolation.
Collignon’s comments come amid a growing volume of advice being provided by health and safety regulators around Australia.
In a fact sheet on its web site, Safe Work Australia says employers have a duty of care under model work health and safety laws to do what is reasonably practical to protect the health and safety of workers and others at their workplace.
This includes identifying potential hazards and risks and implementing reasonably practical measures to minimise or eliminate these.
Regarding coronavirus, Safe Work Australia stresses the need to monitor advice from the Australian Government Department of Health and Smartraveller along with advice from state/territory agencies.
Depending on the workplace, It says appropriate measures may include:
- Monitoring official Government sources for current information and advice
- Reviewing and promoting organisational policies and measures for infection control
- Ensuring workers are aware of the isolation/quarantine periods in accordance with advice from the Australian Government Department of Health. This includes information on when staff should not attend work
- Providing clear advice to workers about actions they should take if they become unwell or think they may have the symptoms of coronavirus, in accordance with advice from the Australian Government Department of Health and state or territory health department
- Eliminating or minimising international work travel, in line with the travel advice on the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website
- Providing regular updates to workers about the situation and any changes to organisational policies or procedures
- Contingency planning to manage staff absences
- Providing workers with information and links to relevant services should they require support.
For workers themselves, Safe Work advises says they have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and to not adversely affect the health and safety of others.
With the coronavirus, this involves practicing good hygiene and other measures to protect themselves and others against infection.
Specifically, this includes:
- Washing hands often, with soap and water, or carrying hand sanitiser and using it as needed
- Covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, but not using their hands to do so
- Seeing a health care professional if they start to feel unwell
- If unwell, avoiding contact with others (including shaking hands or other touching, such as hugging).
Finally, Collignon talks of the need to avoid panic and focus on basic hygiene.
“I think people need to keep this in perspective,” Collignon said.
“Yes, we need to be concerned, but the major people who are at risk are those who are older – parents and grandparents – rather than people who are working on sites themselves.
“But we all need to do things we should be doing all the time.
“Here is a reason to say ‘well, if you didn’t do it before, here is a reason to start doing what your mother told you to do.’”