Morris Napolitano had the idea to train construction workers on how to clean up and avoid contracting a pandemic disease a decade before the novel coronavirus appeared.

[For ENR’s latest coverage of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here]

"I’ll never forget what I saw on TV: a janitor in the school has no mask or other protection, and he’s wiping down surfaces for H1N1," the chairman of the Environmental Contractors Association recalled Tuesday. That's when Napolitano, who also owns the Brooklyn-based environmental remediation contracting firm Degmore Inc., and the ECA decided to "create training" on biological hazards such as dangerous viruses, "and a standard that every contractor would be held to," complete with certification.

But the training will have to wait until June, since the New York City officials have prohibited gatherings of 50 or more people—which would include the ECA/Linders training seminar. For now, Napolitano offers advice to workers and supervisors at construction sites, some of whom may serve as skeleton crews where work has been suspended.

Workers should stay at least 6 ft away from each other. Contractors and project owners should provide soap and water and perhaps even hand sanitizers on site. Portable toilets should be cleaned regularly and a person should use toilet paper or paper towels "between you and hard objects" rather than touch things directly, Napolitano says.

He says "most of my work is asbestos," which ironically is a good thing for his crews, because "my guys are always suited up with respirators. All our men have booties, gloves, X fit suits, hoodies. We’re safe."

Another way to keep employees safe from the COVID-19 virus is by stopping work at construction sites. "I have a feeling that’s going to continue," Napolitano says, adding that already, "a couple of my jobs have been shut down."

But implementing full work stoppages, like what has happened in Boston, is too drastic, will financially harm people in the industry and doesn't offer increased health protection for workers, other construction executives say.

“Given the precautions already in place, halting construction will do little to protect the health and safety of construction workers," Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen E. Sandherr said in a statement Tuesday.  "But it will go a long way in undermining economic vitality by depriving millions of workers of the wages they will need over the coming days."

Napolitano says there's always been confusion about how the construction industry can protect public health.

"The city is constantly dealing with disasters. Unfortunately, nobody ever learns," he says. For example, after Superstorm Sandy, people were desperate to hire contractors to remove mold from buildings. "Many homeowners got ripped off by out-of-town contractors saying, 'I can clean up mold'...the mold came right back" because those contractors weren't properly trained, Napolitano claims.

He says the idea for ECA members to create standardized training "ourselves" has gained traction with other construction associations and New York City officials, and he hopes they'll be fully on board by the time the ECA and the Linders Health Institute offers the course June 10-11 at The Sheraton in Times Square. The training will cover infection control fundamentals for contractors and address infection control risk assessment.