The BC Building Trades Council (BCBT) is asking the province to launch a public inquiry into health and safety practices in the construction sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The recommendation was included in the BCBT’s submission to Premier John Horgan’s Economic Recovery Task Force. The group includes leaders from labour, business, First Nations and the non-profit sector who have been asked to give input on the province’s economic response to the pandemic.
Andrew Mercier, executive director of the BC Building Trades, said the unions believe the pandemic has exposed a culture of non-compliance in some segments of the industry that should be looked at.
BCBT, which represents 35,000 unionized construction workers, began pushing for more enforcement of site sanitation rules during the pandemic after workers called and emailed to report unsafe conditions. These included inadequate washroom facilities, a lack of running water, no soap or hand sanitizer, workers sharing tools and working too close to each other, and workers coming to their sites visibly sick.
“We have had no hand sanitizer, no provisions for hand-washing and no safety talks about hygiene and the pandemic,” wrote one worker to the BCBT. “People are sneezing and coughing and obviously sick and are not being asked to go home.”
WorkSafeBC introduced a new “inspectional initiative” in March to ensure builders were complying with COVID-19 orders. Mercier praised WorkSafeBC for its handling of the pandemic but warned the progress could be short-lived.
“The industry has been pushed to deal with COVID-19 by WorkSafeBC from its inspection initiative,” said Mercier. “It moved them to take the matter seriously. We can’t backslide. We can’t get lulled into a sense of complacency with health and safety. The fact that there needed to be a push is worrying.”
Mercier stressed the Public Inquiry Act is a flexible tool that doesn’t need to legalistic or adversarial.
“The safety of our workers and workers in our industry is of paramount importance,” he said. “I would think that an inquiry would be welcomed by all. It’s not about blaming anyone. It’s about finding solutions. We don’t need a legalistic process that is designed to drive blame but just a fact-finding process about what is the nature and scope of the issue and some recommendations from someone able to take the broad view.”
Mercier explained a crucial time lies ahead as B.C. begins to slowly reopen certain parts of its economy in phases.
“I think we are at a crossroads in determining the legacy of this pandemic,” he said. “We should want it to be an increased focus on health and safety.”
In addition to an inquiry, the Building Trades also made the following recommendations to the task force:
- Dedicate Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) enforcement teams to continue to inspect the construction industry and ensure contractors are extending WCB coverage to all workers and following PHO guidelines.
- Expand the development of major infrastructure projects built under Community Benefits Agreements.
- Invest in public infrastructure that will foster private sector investment such as roadbuilding.
- Invest in trades training to support an extension to online training.
- Focus training funding to organizations that have the ability to recruit and train displaced workers from sectors hard hit by the pandemic and give them access to jobs in the construction industry.
- Support the construction of low carbon projects to create jobs across B.C.
- Foster the development of B.C.’s LNG industry.
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