As third-wave COVID-19 cases rise within the construction sector, Ontario’s building trade unions have offered their union centres as potential clinics where construction workers would be vaccinated.
In one week, March 30 to April 6, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario reported, there was a total of 24 cases among unionized building trades members reported by the executive board of the council and nine cases reported by the local building trades councils.
Between January and April 9, there were 237 total cases of COVID-19 reported among building trades members.
The numbers are probably worse, Carmine Tiano, director for occupational health services at the Building Trades, stated in a report to the Building Trades board this week.
“I suspect that there is a great deal of under-reporting in all the numbers and local unions and building trades councils are not capturing the true burden of infections,” Tiano wrote.
And the numbers do not reflect workers who may be quarantining due to proximity to a positive case, Tiano noted, nor do they reflect non-union construction workers in Ontario. Approximately 32 per cent of construction workers in the province are unionized.
“Overall we’re holding our own,” commented Tiano, referring to the number of workers infected as a percentage of the overall Ontario population. “However, in the first nine days of April…we’re already at 21 cases. If that trend continues, we’re going to exceed March by a lot, more disease in the community. So overall, we’re holding our own, but I put out there that we need to be more diligent.”
Tiano calculated that the provincial cases rate increased by 29.1 per cent the week of March 27 to April 2 to 120.49 cases per 100,000 people. The cases rate for the previous week was 93.4 cases per 100,000 people.
Two other construction stakeholders agreed that construction workers should be prioritized for vaccines but Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, noted there are competing interests.
“I believe that many construction organizations, both management and labour, have advocated for priority vaccinations for construction workers,” said Cunningham. “It would be an easy call if there was an unlimited supply of vaccine. But with a limited supply of vaccine, the decision-makers have the difficult job trying to determine which among all the essential workers are at greatest risk.”
Ontario General Contractors Association health and safety committee chair Craig Lesurf stated, “We would certainly like to see prioritization given to construction workers given that we are all out working on what are our front lines.”
Tiano said he wrote to a director at Toronto Public Health on April 8 offering the use of union centres to host clinics. He noted that within the GTA there might be 10 or 12 building trade centres that could host clinics.
He said he had not heard back on the offer yet.
The request comes as the province has unveiled a series of expanded options for the delivery of vaccinations. Construction workers are currently slotted within Phase Two sequencing among workers who cannot work from home. Updated as of April 9, those workers were grouped into two groups with construction workers in Group 2, slotted to receive vaccinations beginning in June.
As outlined during a technical briefing held April 13, the Ministry of Health has initiated targeted vaccinations for what it terms Hot Spot Communities within 13 provincial public health units (PHUs). The province is allowing local PHUs to designate other hot spot communities and PHUs have been given permission to set up mobile or pop-up clinics.
“Host” organizations such as faith-based organizations or employer-hosted workplaces in the hot spots are being permitted to set up clinics.
The policy also calls for citizens as young as 18 who live in “targeted high-risk settings” to be eligible to receive a vaccine.
Besides being located in a hot spot community, the eligibility for establishing an employer-hosted workplace clinic includes having had a previous COVID outbreak or being at risk of an outbreak.
The Ministry of Health has not yet issued a response to messages asking for clarification of the employer-hosted workplace policy and whether union centres would fit within the framework.
Tiano said the eligibility of citizens aged 18 and older in hot spots, combined with a promising flow of vaccines into the province, was a positive step that would soon enable substantial numbers of construction workers to become vaccinated.
“It’s already ramped up in the last seven days a lot,” Tiano commented.
But, he said, “I don’t see them moving to just go in and start vaccinating specific work sites because that would be logistically impossible. I think the smartest move is to focus the vaccines in the general hot spots routes within public health authorities.”
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