The Importance of Safeguarding Site Construction, Alteration, and Demolition during the COVID-19 Pandemic

On March 16, Boston became the first city in the nation to issue a stop (for two weeks) to its booming construction industry. Shortly after, similar measures were put into place in Pennsylvania, where on March 19, all construction operations were also ordered to stop.  In other cities such as New York and Chicago, construction activity has been modified but not stopped altogether, as certain construction practices are deemed ‘essential' and are permitted.  Meanwhile, a “stay at home” order issued by California government does not apply to current construction projects there but some California cities have issued stricter provisions than those mandated by the state, such as San Francisco, where only construction on housing can continue as can construction on critical infrastructure.

Regardless of the varied levels of regulation in different states, the construction industry is feeling the impact of COVID-19, making guidance on safe practices for construction, alternation and demolition operations as relevant now as its ever been.  Whether it's for new critical infrastructure such as healthcare facilities or permitted ongoing construction projects, proper safety measures cannot be shutdown or overlooked.  Major construction site fires have made headline news several times just in the last few months, causing millions in property damage and stopping projects in their tracks, and hundreds more have occurred beyond that.  As the industry continues to manage these fire events, invest in safety and bring awareness to these issues, simply looking past safe practices now will slow progress and put lives and projects at risk.

Model building and fire codes mandate structures undergoing construction, alteration, or demolition operations to comply with NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations. NFPA 241 provides measures for preventing or minimizing fire damage during construction, alteration, and demolition operations. (The fire department and other fire protection authorities also should be consulted for guidance.) It covers temporary construction, equipment, and storage, processes and hazards, utilities, fire protection, and safeguarding various operations, such as  construction and alterations, roofing, demolition, and underground operations.

Among other critical protection measures for construction site fire safety, NFPA 241 requires an overall construction or demolition fire safety program be developed.  A fire prevention program manager(FPPM), appointed by the owner, is required and will be responsible for the protection of the property from fire.  This person will be fully aware of and responsible for the information and procedures set forth in the fire safety program and has full authority to enforce them.  During this time, the FPPM should be aware of local shutdown requirements, if applicable, and how to safety manage the construction site while securing and removing equipment, materials, and personnel, as required by local jurisdiction, if construction is halted.

While NFPA 241 was not developed with the primary intent of being applied to the rapid shutdown of construction sites, such as what is happening in cities like Boston, it can offer safe guidance for maintaining safe construction sites during this unprecedented time.  Further guidance on the safe and recommended use of NFPA 241 during construction site shutdowns is being disseminated throughout the industry.  One local fire protection consulting firm has provided this guidance to its clients and stakeholders and could be useful to anyone concerned with construction site fire safety at this time. 

Have NFPA Technical Questions on NFPA 241?

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At NFPA, we fully recognize that the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus is requiring professionals across multiple industries to function in ways that run counter to the norm, and that there needs to flexibility for these groups and organizations as they work to accommodate the demands of the current crisis. However, best practices should be applied when and where possible. When it comes to occupancies under construction, the requirements within NFPA 241 can be followed in the vast majority of instances without compromising efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Kristin Bigda
Technical Lead and Principal Fire Protection Engineer with a focus on building and life safety related content.

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