With the spectre of a shutdown of Ontario’s construction jobsites hanging over the sector, Premier Doug Ford joined construction stakeholders in calling for significant upgrades to health and safety conditions at project sites across the province.
Ford left open the question of whether construction will be considered an essential industry during an address to the province Monday afternoon in which he announced that non-essential workplaces will be closed for two weeks as of Tuesday at midnight due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The list of industries to be affected by the shutdown was to be announced Tuesday.
Last Friday, the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, the Construction Employers Coordinating Council of Ontario, the Council of Ontario Construction Associations and the Construction and Design Alliance of Ontario issued a joint statement calling for jobsites to be kept open.
“With the ever-evolving situation concerning the Coronavirus also known as COVID-19, we are advising that construction worksites in the province of Ontario remain open and that the appropriate preventative measures be implemented and enforced on every construction worksite in the province,” the release stated.
“Everybody is on the same page as far as workplace health and safety and hygiene,” said Patrick Dillon, the Building Trades business manager, in an interview.
“If we keep jobsites open and have the Ministry of Labour send in inspectors right now, it will help the industry going forward.”
Dillon acknowledged that there is no consensus among trades workers in the province on whether the sector should be shut down. But with potential Employment Insurance payments projected to compensate workers for only a fraction of their working wages, he argued many workers are concerned about paying bills now and down the line if a shutdown continued for months.
“A fair percentage want to work but they want to be safe,” he said. “There are many mixed messages with governors and premiers telling everybody to stay home.
“If you take a leadership role as a union to shut things down, and this goes on for three or four months, but they are getting a quarter of their wages subsidized by the government, that doesn’t pay the bills. Then they are going to start screaming and shouting at the people who recommended shutting it down when I believe myself, if the tools are there and the materials are there, if the government and the employers are interested in hygiene, in safety in the workplace, they could make it happen immediately.”
Take care of front-line construction workers,
— Doug Ford
Even as Ford spoke live on Facebook offering scenarios when at least certain types of projects might remain open, comments streamed on the site urging him to shut construction down.
“Elizabeth Ann Ryan” wrote, “Close down construction. The union (has) monies that workers pay out. My son is risking his life by having to travel to different sites to do work. This is very hard on him and also me.”
“Simon Peter” added, “I’m a father of 2, they (are worried) about me. Please shut it down.”
Responding to a question, Ford called out contractors who left outhouses full on jobsites and did not provide adequate water or disinfectant soap.
“Get your act together,” Ford said. “Take care of front-line construction workers. To have an outhouse overflowing in the picture I saw, it is unacceptable.
“And if they don’t do it, we will do it.”
At another point, Ford addressed construction workers who did not feel safe: “If you don’t feel safe … leave the site and don’t come back.”
Dillon said all efforts should be made to keep jobsites save for workers during the pandemic, suggesting it’s not an impossibility even given the unique nature of construction work.
“Jobsites are always supposed to be safe,” he said. “We have been going on for years letting on they have been safe when they are not. That’s what is really coming to light right now.
“There are different ways of accomplishing keeping people at work under safe conditions. We recommended they split the shifts, and elevators going up to get to work should not have more than four or five people depending on the size of elevator or if it’s open air or closed.”
Dillon said Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton had not given him any assurances about a possible shutdown one way or another during recent discussions.
The statement issued by the four construction stakeholder associations last Friday said, “In the interest of the well-being of the construction workforce and the Ontario population in general, the decision to shut down (or not to shut down) the construction industry will be guided by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health in consultation with the appropriate government authorities, construction employers and the Building Trades Council.”