The Ontario Good Roads Association (OGRA) has issued a plea to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott asking her to consider prioritizing frontline snow removal workers for COVID-19 vaccinations.
A letter signed by OGRA president Rick Harms and submitted Dec. 10 stated, “I would respectfully and strongly urge you to consider prioritizing the men and women who are on the frontline of winter road maintenance in Ontario. Including this very small cohort of people in your prioritized vaccine distribution list will ensure that those we are relying on to get us through this pandemic are not undermined by something as foreseeable as snow in Ontario.”
Harms referred to first responders such as frontline medical staff, firefighters, paramedics and police and stated, “I am deeply concerned that municipalities may have to close roadways because those charged with keeping them open and safe during the winter have fallen ill. If this happens, it directly undermines the efficacy of those men and women mentioned above, who we all count on to be there for us during an emergency.”
Harms said, “To be clear, those Ontarians most at risk of dying from the virus should also be at the front of the vaccine line.”
OGRA executive director Scott Butler praised the “reassuring” steps the Doug Ford government and task force chair Rick Hillier have taken to plan for the rollout of the vaccine and establish a priority list of vaccine recipients. The request would not have been made if it was summer, he said.
“We have heard of a few cases where public works yards have had to shut down because of positive cases,” Butler said. “If there is a way we can mitigate against that and ensure that the health care system can continue to do what they need to do, there is a fairly prudent and ethical case for that.”
Construction stakeholders offered differing views of the proposal.
Craig Lesurf, president of Gillam Group and health and safety advocate with several Ontario associations, argued that claims could be made that several different types of workers were equally essential, including transit workers, supermarket workers and other food providers.
“As such it’s hard to choose one over the other,” said Lesurf.
“It only makes sense that after seniors, vulnerable people and health care workers, the next in line would be essential workers. And within the essential workers there are different levels of needs that would need to be examined. I would not argue that in order for things to keep moving and everyone be safe on the roads the winter road maintenance crews should be prioritized.”
But the OGRA does have a supporter in Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations.
“I think that those with the authority to prioritize various groups for vaccination will consider, among other things, the essential nature of their work and their vulnerability to infection,” said Cunningham, mentioning frontline health care workers and staff and residents of long-term-care homes.
“I think a strong case can be made for winter road maintenance crews too. Keeping the roads open and in safe condition is essential for the functioning of our society.”
Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) president Giovanni Cautillo said there had been rumblings in the construction sector that its workers should be near the front of the line for the vaccine but he does not support such advocacy. He said the OGCA will continue to focus on strong health and safety protocols.
Cautillo said he understands the OGRA’s position, saying, “If the roads don’t get cleared then first responders and other frontline workers may be affected from doing what they do best.
“Personally, for the ICI sector, we have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, our willingness to support the frontline workers and will always insist that those most vulnerable should be issued the vaccine as a priority.”
Cautillo said the ICI sector has shown it can keep its sites safe. WSIB claims related to COVID for the sector have amounted to only one-half of one per cent of total workplace claims.
Butler said the OGRA has not received a response yet from the government and he understood they had immediate priorities with vaccines due for delivery in the next week.
The OGRA is hosting a free webinar on vaccines for its members Dec. 17.
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