Alberta and Ontario’s concrete industries worked through different conditions at the outset of COVID-19 but have both adopted practices for both present and future pandemics.
Concrete Alberta executive director Dan Hanson and Concrete Ontario president Bart Kanters took part in the COVID-19: How is the concrete industry dealing with the challenge? session during the Buildings Week virtual conference, with each of them highlighting their respective provinces initial responses and continued action dealing with a global pandemic.
Alberta immediately identified the construction industry as an essential service at the outset of the pandemic, Hanson said, and Alberta was already facing a financial crisis brought on by a global oil price crash.
The Alberta government responded quickly, he added, with a $10 billion investment in infrastructure and capital spending, increased funding for municipalities and an accelerated reduction of the business tax rate from 10 per cent to eight per cent.
“The recovery plan in a sense doubled down on government support for the construction sector, first identifying the industry as essential and then announcing significant initiatives that supported construction jobs and investment,” Hanson said.
“The elephant in the room is the messaging from the premier and finance minister about ‘fiscal reckoning’ that’s going to need to take place to address rapidly increasing debt and declining revenue position. Our advocacy efforts had to align with these realities.”
Concrete Alberta partnered with other ready-mixed concrete associations such as the Cement Association of Canada and other Alberta construction associations to develop Pandemic Planning for the Construction Industry, a document focused on return to work and office protocols, risk management best practices and site safety guidelines.
“The guide continues to be updated and remains an important resource. We’re well positioned to operate within the new normal going forward,” Hanson said.
Ontario faced a different situation than Alberta, Kanters said, with the industry moving from select sectors deemed essential to 100 per cent operational status.
“Ready mix concrete is an essential product, so our industry is very fortunate and thankful we were able to keep operating and keep workers employed,” he said.
Initial measures included banning visitors from plants and rethinking spring maintenance activity, he added.
“Typically we have lower concrete volumes in the spring but the challenge was ‘do I really need this maintenance work? Is the contractor doing maintenance work essential if I’m essential?’” Kanters asked.
One of the key areas in a concrete plant is the batcher, he said, “which could be delivering to 20 to 30 projects a day.”
That area had to be isolated to ensure the health of both the plant and the operator in the batcher room, Kanters said.
“For most concrete plants the batch office is off limits to everyone but the batcher. One person oversees every cubic metre of concrete coming out of a plant, so we have to make sure there’s no issues there,” he said.
COVID-19 meant restricting staff interactions and decontamination but it also accelerated a move away from paper ticketing and towards electronic forms, he added.
“The concrete industry has been developing electronic ticketing for five to 10 years and COVID-19 radically accelerated that. Suddenly there was a real business case for adopting electronic ticketing,” Kanters said.
Electronic ticketing also presents advantages over the old system, where vacuum tubes delivered paper forms generated by dot matrix printers.
“The whole process creates a link between the driver and the batcher and there’s a need to decontaminate,” he said. “The idea here is to eliminate paper completely and then you have the advantage of adding other features. If you have GPS tracking, these systems are web portals and you can pull up a map and see where all the trucks are.”
Concrete truck drivers are a key component of the process, he added, and “protecting them was one of the critical issues. They’re going out from the concrete plant to many different jobsites so we eliminated the practice of sharing vehicles and having drivers remaining in the cab of the truck when not loading and unloading to minimize exposure.”
Training new drivers is also necessary and it was vital to find a way to allow a mentor and trainee to be in the same truck cab.
Company-specific screenings were used at the start and end of shifts along with temperature checks, he said.
While the initial response was somewhat chaotic, Kanters said the lessons learned from dealing with the pandemic put the industry in good stead for the next crisis.
“There was a lot of confusion, but we’ve learned a lot and we’ll be better prepared the next time around, though let’s hope that’s a long ways off,” he said.
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