Ontario’s construction sector is expressing relief that the COVID-19 lockdown measures announced by the Doug Ford government Jan. 12 will not significantly curtail construction projects in the province.
Stakeholders are suggesting that despite the province declaring that non-essential construction will have to shut down, most of the construction work that was being undertaken before the new state of emergency was announced — perhaps as much as 85 per cent, in one estimate — will continue during the 28-day emergency period.
“Construction is largely open,” said Giovanni Cautillo, president of the Ontario General Contractors Association. “The vast majority of construction will be open.
“When I read over the language of the exemptions, it’s not meant to stifle construction.
“I know they are walking a tightrope and I applaud the government for the subtlety that they’ve used. They have to keep the economy going, yet they have to protect everyone as well, but they also understand that the construction industry is not a main spreader of COVID.”
The government initially declared that under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, “non-essential construction is further restricted, including below-grade construction, exempting survey,” and then issued a lengthy list of permitted projects that were declared essential.
Cautillo said the projects shut down were mainly commercial works that hadn’t yet started — they’ve been shelved for 28 days.
That interpretation that construction was largely spared was echoed by Sandro Perruzza, chair of the Construction and Design Alliance of Ontario and CEO of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers.
“I don’t think anything’s really changed for our sector and for construction,” said Perruzza. “Certainly a few projects are going to be put on hold but the vast majority of projects are going to continue to move ahead as planned.”
Construction sector has proved itself
Cautillo, Perruzza and other stakeholders such as Karen Renkema, vice-president for Ontario at the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, and Patrick Dillon, business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, all noted the construction sector has proved it could work relatively safely during the pandemic.
“We’re pleased that the whole industry wasn’t shut down,” said Dillon. “The industry has done a lot of work over the last nine months to prove and show to the government that it is safe to be at work. So that’s been recognized.”
“If you were expecting that the whole industry could have been shut down, then you would be pleased that it’s only a limited shutdown,” said Cunningham, noting that during a conference call organized by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development the morning before the announcement, it was pointed out workplaces accounted for only five per cent of cases of COVID-19. And within that, he calculated, COVID WSIB claims from construction workers were only 0.58 per cent of all workplace COVID claims.
“I think we can pat ourselves on the back for doing our best to control the virus,” said Cunningham.
Renkema said the industry would be challenged in the next 28 days to demonstrate to government that it can continue to provide economic opportunities for its workers, keep the province moving and work safely. She noted that Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton announced a new program Jan. 12, the Stay Safe All Day campaign, in which inspectors will use a “data-driven approach” to focus on workplaces with reported COVID-19 outbreaks including construction projects.
“With the introduction of new, enhanced health and safety protocols and rapid testing, I’m hopeful that within 28 days the rest of the industry can then again continue to work,” said Renkema. “I think it’s important that this is data-driven and that we continue to reassess and assess the information that we have about construction and about how safely we’re working.”
Worksites are safe spaces
Cautillo addressed concerns expressed on social media that the health of workers on worksites deemed essential, such as construction, would be put in peril by being forced to work during the second wave of the pandemic. He said the construction sector has made safety predominant and it welcomes the attention of inspectors to assist in maintaining high standards.
Construction sites with their extensive protocols are safer than most other community settings, he argued.
“Both organized labour and management, everyone’s on the same page,” he said. “We want people to feel safe, and that’s demonstrated by the numbers that we can produce.
“You know, no one is obligated to go to work. You can choose to stay at home. We’re not going to squawk about that.”
Representatives of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA) both issued statements supporting the government’s approach to construction.
Dave Wilkes, president and CEO of BILD, stated, “Our industry and our association will take all necessary steps to make sure that COVID-19 health and safety protocols are maintained at the highest possible levels.”
“We need to pull together. We all want to be safe at home and at work,” said Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the OHBA. “With these new restrictions, the Ontario government continues to make public safety the priority.”
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