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Pandemic putting ‘health’ back into health and safety, says OCS panellist

Don Procter
Pandemic putting ‘health’ back into health and safety, says OCS panellist

The pandemic is helping to “put the ‘health’ back into health and safety” in the construction industry.

That’s the message from Modern Niagara’s vice-president Erin Oliver, one of four speakers on a panel examining the state of health and safety in a post-pandemic world at the Ontario Construction Secretariat’s virtual convention recently.

Infection control through improved sanitation is a case in point, Oliver told viewers, noting that clear, concise communication messaging, often in the form of “brief snippets,” has helped workers digest an otherwise enormous challenge.

The industry, however, still has things to learn.

Safety issues, for one, can’t be proprietary if the industry wants to continue to improve standards, she said.

Health and safety standards deemed impossible to meet on construction sites prior to the pandemic were made possible overnight to avoid wide-scale shutdowns, said Carmine Tiano, director of occupational health services with the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario.

Maintaining those new standards is paramount, he said.

Panellist Stephen Callender, president of Bass Installation, agreed, noting site cleanliness will continue to be a priority as part of the glass installation contractor’s safety program once COVID-19 has passed.

The pandemic also prompted the industry to address systemic issues that were “outside our comfort zone,” such as mental health and diversity, pointed out Oliver.

As president of the Afro-Canadian Contractors Association, Callender said the association had been in development for three years and a series of anti-racist events on construction sites helped to speed up its opening which occurred Feb. 1.

He told the webinar audience that enquiries from contractors wanting to join along with calls from people interested in taking the first step to get into the building industry has been growing ever since.

Oliver said Modern Niagara is developing long-term strategies to deal with racism and added the company has implemented diversity, equity and inclusion discussions in all of its joint health and safety committee meetings and it is a topic at site inspections.

Racism has to be out in the open and the industry has to work toward a systemic solution, she said, noting some of the company’s employees have faced racism on construction sites in Toronto.

Tiano added construction sites need to be policed for racism as if it were any other hazard under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“Respected work language” in collective agreements or onsite will also help to start to address the systemic problem, he said.

Addressing recruitment strategies is another factor in the effort to deal with racism, he said, noting the time is right to tackle issues to make a major “society change.”

Strengthening joint health and safety training through anti-racism strategies is needed to help stem racism, added panellist Ron Kelusky, Ontario’s chief prevention officer.

Another issue to address is separating industry sectors with high incident rates, such as renovation and demolition, from lower-rate sectors, Kelusky said.

He added there is a strong case for mandatory entry level construction training based on the high rate of incidents among general labourers and trade helpers.

“I would say COVID really put into the forefront the importance of prevention in the province of Ontario. Now we have to…keep it going.”

Kelusky said “compliance assistance, something that the ministry (of labour) is starting to embark on” is important.

The idea is to provide an effective deterrent to incidents and that isn’t always a fine, he said.

“Do you fine a person (contractor) that makes $200 million in profit $1 million for an incident or do you have them enrol in a monitored safety program?” he said, calling it “creative sentencing.”

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