The Question Is Important During Pandemic, but Firm Answers Prove Hard to Come By

By Jessica Zimmer, Contributing Writer

Cal/OSHA requires unvaccinated workers to wear facemasks indoors. Outdoors, employees are not required to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. (The exception is when there’s a COVID-19 outbreak.)

Yet, when a building is under construction, at what point does it technically become an indoor environment?

Cal/OSHA was contacted for this story but did not provide an answer to the question as of press time. However, we were able to get labor union attorneys and officials from building trades locals to weigh in on the matter.

We found that everyone seems to have a different understanding of the term “indoors.”

Zoe Palitz is a partner with Altshuler Berzon LLP, a San Francisco-based law firm that represents a variety of building trades locals. Palitz said she was not aware of Cal/OSHA guidance that clarifies when a construction site becomes indoors for purposes of COVID-19 protocols. Yet Palitz said Cal/OSHA has dealt with similar issues when adopting standards protecting workers from heat illness and wildfire smoke.

“The agency has said, ‘Outdoor workplaces […] include construction sites in which no building shell has been completed and areas of construction sites that are outside of any building shells that may be present,’” Palitz said.

Bart Pantoja, business representative for Glaziers Local 718, said he considers a project to be an indoor space when all four sides of a floor of a multi-floor building are enclosed. He added that in large buildings such as high-rises, glazing systems are installed around the building, and floors are enclosed one at a time.

The details Pantoja provided get into the weeds, but they’re worth examining: “The first floor may be enclosed and the third floor open to the elements on all four sides,” he said. “This could be considered a floor-by-floor definition of an envelope system, making a floor indoors. Also, between floors — at the floor decking between the façades envelope — whether [the building has] a glass and aluminum or composite masonry panel, or light exterior framing with a composite panel system, there can be spacing connecting the floors above and below that is not sealed off.

“Until these areas are closed off in our example, the first floor still might be considered open-air because of uncontrolled ventilation and air and water infiltration.”

John Kaloyeros, lead HVACR instructor for UA Local 38, said certain property owners such as biotech or pharmaceutical companies will consider a space indoors after the concrete slab is poured.

“These owners have concerns about mold and contamination from food and water,” Kaloyeros said. “The owners may have a temporary dehumidification unit helping to keep the building dry while it’s under construction. This does not affect nor enhance safety as to COVID-19.”

John Doherty, business manager and financial secretary for IBEW 6, said that even when a building is not fully enclosed, spaces like elevators and electrical closets should be considered indoor environments.

“A building might have electrical closets built within it before it is completely finished,” Doherty said. “These areas have no air circulating in them. The building itself may not be ‘indoors,’ but these areas of the building should be considered indoors.”

Doherty added that as of September, most employers in the city want union workers to wear masks “indoors and outdoors, all the time.”

“We’re seeing employers become increasingly strict,” he said. “They don’t want union workers to get sick or risk the liability of workers getting sick. IBEW 6 urges all of our members to get vaccinated, for the benefit of our members and their families.”

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