The initial response from industry leaders to recent acts of racism on Ontario construction jobsites was swift and clear: there is no place for racism in our industry.
And at least one of the specific companies involved has taken concrete steps to ensure such incidents never occur on one of their projects again.
But what will it take to address racism across the industry? No construction executive I know is naive enough to think that a few sternly worded social media posts and a toolbox talk are enough to eradicate this blight from the industry for good. It will take an intentional, united and sustained effort from all corners of construction to end racism and prejudice of any kind.
The good news is that we know what it takes to bring about this kind of culture change in Ontario construction because we have done it before.
In the wake of tragedies such as Hogg’s Hollow in the 1960s, industry leaders — labour, employers, owners, and government — came together and over time ushered in a massive transformation of workplace safety in construction.
No one for a second would suggest that everything is now perfect, but it is undeniable that through continuous collaboration Ontario’s construction sector has made an enormous shift in its approach to workplace safety: from loosely enforced compliance to a broadly-embraced culture of care for the way things get built in this province.
And the shift from safety compliance to safety culture has paid dividends. Ontario’s construction industry is profoundly safer today than it was a generation ago.
In recent weeks, construction has experienced another tragic wakeup call. High profile acts of racism have exposed a terrible burden that too many in the industry have silently carried with them until now.
We are kidding ourselves if we think these are isolated incidents. We owe it to people of colour and all minority communities, both within the industry and outside of it, to extend the culture of safety in all its forms to all people within construction, and most especially our racialized colleagues and co-workers.
The experience of Ontario’s construction industry with workplace safety provides some clear action steps both industry and individual contractors can take.
There are no silver bullets, but industry can begin by advocating for the following:
- Strengthen the regulatory framework, penalties and enforcement of anti-racism policies governing construction in Ontario.
- Integrate anti-racism and inclusion policies and programs into industry safety institutions and initiatives, such as the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association, COR certification and apprenticeship training curricula.
- Create industrywide reward and recognition programs that promote innovation and leadership in workplace diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.
At a corporate level, there is much every contractor can do as well. For example:
- Company leaders should develop and clearly communicate core values and anti-racism workplace policies with frequency and consistency throughout the organization.
- Project participants including owners, contractors, suppliers, and labour should, prior to the start of work, reaffirm a zero-tolerance policy for racism or other acts of prejudice on the jobsite. Inclusion trumps “on time, on budget” always. Period.
- Project managers should enforce consistent frontline commitment to anti-racism policies by empowering supervisors to apply swift, unequivocal discipline for even the mildest violation of anti-racism and inclusion policies.
In my work with small, medium and large organizations in construction and other industries, I see repeatedly what it takes to create a healthy and high-performing culture. Simply put, it takes clarity of vision, consistency of application and commitment from every member of the team.
That clarity, consistency and commitment is what helped Ontario’s construction industry shift from a spotty safety compliance system to a broadly embraced safety culture. And it is what it will take now to eliminate racism for the industry once and for all.
Sean Reid is president and head coach at Arrowhead Coaching and Facilitation Solutions, a consulting company committed to helping leaders build remarkable organizations with clarity and confidence. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to email@example.com.