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Concern about being infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is seen as one factor in the struggle to hire new employees that many industries are experiencing, including construction.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce report on the Commercial Construction Index, released in June 2021, states, “In industries as diverse as agriculture and construction, healthcare and hospitality, manufacturing and computer software, 76% of the respondents reported that businesses in their industries find it difficult’ (52%) or ‘very difficult’ (24%) to hire workers right now.”1

In July, the lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics added this perspective: “Virus fear is still the main impediment to the economy returning to full strength.”

For this reason and for the sake of employee health and ending the virus’ spread, it’s troubling to read reports of a high vaccine hesitancy rate among construction employees. A survey by Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh shows that vaccine hesitancy among employees in construction, oil and gas extraction, and mining was 46.4%, compared to 22.1% for all working adults, ages 18 to 64.3,4,5 

Amid High Vaccine Hesitancy in Construction, a Glimmer of Willingness

A somewhat more hopeful survey, conducted by Morning Consult, asked unvaccinated adults if they would be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were made available to them. Nationwide, 56% of respondents said yes, compared to 53% in construction.6,7 Occupational health experts can support construction in making the COVID-19 vaccine available and addressing vaccine hesitancy.

Is the Pandemic End Near? Not likely, Not Yet

Employees who take their cues from the heave and pitch of the nightly news or social media may think the pandemic has run its course, and all has mostly returned to normal. While the intensity of the news coverage has waned, the pandemic remains an active, global threat. A fitting metaphor for the current pandemic status might be walking through a dark tunnel, unable to see if the end is one mile or one hundred miles away. 

What form will the end of the pandemic take? That question is debated worldwide. Some believe SARS-CoV-2 will become endemic, like the seasonal flu virus, but it is not really known. Unlike a construction project, a pandemic has no set of drawings to give a full picture.

Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program says, “We don’t know where we are; this is the first pandemic of a SARS coronavirus. From my perspective, crystal-balling it...we’re not even close to the end.”8 

A Tool to Track New Daily COVID Cases and Positivity Rates

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center provides a visual tool to track new daily cases and positivity rates for every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. At a glance, trends can be seen for the current and prior week. On Friday before Independence Day, only 22 states had two consecutive weeks of either flat or declining numbers of new daily cases, according to the CRC’s calculation. 

Before discussing how occupational health can help protect employees on the construction site, there are four important takeaways:

  1. The pandemic remains a threat to the health of unvaccinated employees and the public.
  2. Although there have been sporadic and localized declines in new daily cases of SARS-CoV-2, in most states, a solid, sustained flattening or decline of new cases has not yet materialized. 
  3. Because the pandemic is still a health threat, unvaccinated employees should be vaccinated, except when there are allergic or other medical or religious reasons supporting a valid exemption. 
  4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that employees with signs or symptoms of COVID-19 should have diagnostic testing. Rapid, point-of-care serial screening can identify asymptomatic cases and help interrupt CoV-2 transmission.10

Work at construction sites has been halted for days or weeks at a time when there were COVID-19 outbreaks among employees, a construction publication reported in January 2021.11 It can still happen, at any time. The Center for Construction Research and Training and Associated Builders and Contractors among others, offer links to information resources. Is there more that can be done? 

Valuable Occupational Health Support for Construction

Occupational health experts can enrich the dialogue about the virus and vaccination between employers and employees through their knowledge, experience and third-party status. Most likely, vaccine-hesitant construction employees have not had an opportunity to talk with a medical professional about their doubts. Invite an occupational health clinician to visit the construction site to answer questions. 

The earlier survey concluded 53% of construction employees would be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccination if it were made available to them. Long, sometimes unpredictable schedules and the highly physical nature of construction work may make it hard for employees to become fully vaccinated on their own. This conundrum is easily solved by inviting an occupational health provider to conduct a vaccination event at the worksite. Events like these are common, especially among large employers.  

Enhance communication with employees on the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine by using an online CDC COVID-19 toolkit and partnering with occupational health.12 In addition to occupational health experts, construction employers should consult legal counsel. (Expertise in occupational health and this article do not constitute legal advice.) 

Scientific and clinical medical research produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines and may prevent future pandemics from effectively shutting down the world. Researchers are investigating vaccines to protect against all coronaviruses—not just COVID-19 and variants.13 

By understanding and supporting vaccination, construction executives, managers and employees can contribute to better construction site safety, ease concerns of current and prospective workers, and anticipate brighter days ahead. 


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