The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) is bolstering its efforts to fight COVID-19 at large workplaces with a new testing strategy – a program that is being credited with curtailing the outbreak at The Well project in Toronto in January.
EllisDon, one of the two prime contractors working at the large multi-use site, employed rapid antigen test screening on 600 workers at The Well the week of Jan. 25 as part of a pilot project the MLTSD has initiated.
Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 29 there were 69 positive test results at what is considered Ontario’s largest construction project. Both EllisDon and the other contractor, Deltera, reported positives.
“In January, the ministry facilitated EllisDon’s participation in a rapid antigen test screening pilot project that has allowed them to continue operations uninterrupted,” said Minister Monte McNaughton in a statement issued Feb. 3. “Rapid antigen tests have successfully been deployed on this site to halt the spread of COVID-19, and our government will be providing updates on the program in the coming weeks.”
MLTSD inspectors conducted six site visits between Jan. 12 and Jan. 29 with a total of seven orders and three requirements issued, of which four were related to COVID-19.
“From day one of the pandemic, I have worked closely with the construction industry to keep essential projects open, so long as they can protect the health and safety of workers,” stated McNaughton. “Data from the WSIB – and our ministry’s thousands of construction workplace inspections – shows this strategy is working.”
Two other health and safety stakeholders agreed that despite the outbreak at The Well, which followed a surge of 15 cases at EllisDon’s Michael Garron Hospital jobsite in December, there is no indication the construction sector’s strategy to fight COVID-19 needs re-evaluation.
Ontario Provincial Building Trades Council director for occupational health services Carmine Tiano said besides the outbreak at The Well, there has not been an uptick at construction sites across the province as was feared after the Christmas holidays.
“Considering the amount of disease in the community, we have been doing well in comparison to other sectors, Canada Post in the west end and Belmont Meats just to name a few,” he said. “I don’t think we are out of the woods and will need to be vigilant even when the vaccines come on line.”
Craig Lesurf, president of Gillam Group Inc. and chair of the Ontario General Contractors Association safety committee, said there are conference calls across the sector every two weeks to discuss pandemic issues and noted the rapid antigen testing plan was being welcomed by contractors, with EllisDon participating in the pilot project at several of its sites and others set to come on board.
He said overall, the industry is doing “pretty well.”
“There were 80 known cases of COVID-19 in construction, out of 13,000 reports,” Lesurf said, citing Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics. “And given how many people are actually working in construction, those numbers are well below pretty much most industries. So as an industry we’ve been extremely proactive.”
The rapid tests require a health care provider to visit sites and, Lesurf explained, large numbers can be tested quickly. It is a strategy best suited for larger construction sites, he said, and will complement what he calls the very stringent protocols already undertaken on jobsites. It is another tool in the toolbox for the sector, he said, as is a sector-wide campaign that has been initiated to remind contractors to avoid complacency.
“We follow the hierarchy of controls, which is something that the construction industry is familiar with, which is, first engineer away the problem or any issues you have and then as it goes down the last line of defense is PPE. And we are an industry that wears PPE,” said Lesurf.
EllisDon last week issued a statement outlining its efforts to ensure its workplaces are safe. Deltera has also released a statement in which it outlines the numerous safety protocols on its sites. Deltera noted that The Well, similar to workplaces across the province, suffered cases attributable to the surge across the province following the holidays.
“In response, we notified public health, initiated rigorous protocols for contact tracing, self-isolation of those exposed, in-depth workplace sanitation and all other measures in line with public health and provincial guidelines,” stated the firm. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have also provided testing for all employees and trades on site.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.