As B.C. cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, construction workers are being told to keep their distance, wash their hands and not share tools on jobsites. Other places where groups larger than 50 gather — like bars, restaurants, sports venues – have been ordered to close their doors.
When Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, was asked specifically about workers in camp for the Site C project, Henry said construction workers should practice the same habits other industries are doing.
“There has been a lot of concern about the work camp and Northern Health has been working with the operators up there to ensure all the appropriate operations are put in place to support people as they continue their work,” said Henry. “Under the terms of the emergency there are very specific terms about workplaces like making sure that you can maintain distances between people in buildings etcetera are able to physically separate. Construction work outside is not as much of a risk that we are concerned about.”
One of the province’s other mega projects, the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, B.C., decided to cut their workforce in half.
“Exercising an abundance of caution that prioritizes the safety of our workforce and the local community, LNG Canada, JGC Fluor and our subcontractors will be reducing staffing levels, implementing a mandatory work from home policy for non-business critical positions, and deferring many non-essential work activities at the Kitimat site for the time being,” read a statement from project officials.
Project officials noted that work at the site will be conducted with additional safety, health and hygiene precautions that follow recommended social distancing protocols and all other current recommendations for best practices.
Construction will have to make some decisions. Is getting a building finished essential?… What is essential is keeping those workers safe,
— Mike McKenna
B.C. Construction Safety Alliance
The BC Building Trades Council, which has members at Site C and the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, is now calling for Site C to follow suit.
“We are calling for remote-camp megaprojects in B.C. to be tooled down to all but essential or critical-path work,” said Andrew Mercier, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades Council in a media release. “We need to flatten the curve and alleviate pressure on the rural health care systems.”
Mercier said safety of workers is critical.
“We need contractors to find those safe ways to keep operating so that critical services ― air travel, health care, construction of vital infrastructure ― can take place and support economic recovery in the months ahead.”
Muskrat Falls, a hydro project in Newfoundland and Labrador, has also begun worker reductions.
“We realize that there will be a financial consequence to our members, but the health and safety of our workers is paramount. Once we get through this, we have no doubt that construction work will form part of the stimulus to get this province back on its feet—but we are going to need safe and healthy workers for that.”
Mercier added, “We echo the calls of the BC Federation of Labour and Building Trades unions across the country in calling on financial assistance and relief for working people in this difficult time. We will continue to monitor this situation, and work with proponents and our partners in the Construction Labour Relations Association to make sure that proper protocols are in place for critical or essential workers.”
When asked about how the virus is impacting Site C, officials maintained they had key workers on site to achieve its project goals.
“Our top priority remains the safety of our employees, workers and members of the public. We continue to monitor the situation closely and follow the recommendations and guidance of health authorities,” said Site C community relations manager David Conway. “At this time, work on the project continues and all workers that are key to our critical project milestones continue their work at site.” The B.C. Construction Safety Alliance released its recommendations, advising companies to only do activities where workers can maintain two meters of distance. The alliance added those who have symptoms or been around people with symptoms should not be allowed on jobsites as well as those who have travelled or been around people who have been travelling. Workers should change their clothes and shoes after getting home. Crews should also be disinfection often-touched surfaces and providing handwash stations and hand sanitizer to employees.
The alliance also asked companies to prepare to suspend all non-essential operations as the situation is evolving rapidly and further restrictions will likely be required in the coming days, weeks and months.
The group’s executive director, Mike McKenna, urged the industry to put worker safety first as the issue develops.
“This is our opportunity to be serious. Construction will struggle because it’s so profit-driven and the margins are so slim, but we must come to this reckoning,” said McKenna. “Construction will have to make some decisions. Is getting a building finished essential? A hospital is maybe essential, but I can’t think of an instance where finishing a mall or a three-storey walk-up is essential. What is essential is keeping those workers safe.”
Mckenna also called on the federal government to begin implementing a nation-wide approach to the virus rather than allowing regions to have differing responses.
The Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA) was able to get more clarity from the province on if the provincial health officer’s mass gathering ban for groups of 50 or larger applied to jobsites. Association president Fiona Famulak told members that the province confirmed that jobsites are industrial and therefore exempt. However, the province gave the following recommendations to the industry:
- Reduce the number of people on site;
- Practice social distancing by maintaining two metres separation between workers; and
- Don’t congregating in break areas and lunchrooms.