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COVID, jobsite fatalities a strong reminder to look out for each other

Vince Versace
COVID, jobsite fatalities a strong reminder to look out for each other

Did you hear about that virus?

I remember being asked that question in mid-January of this year and my response was vague for a newshound like me. Sure, I had heard about it, but it seemed a world away, something that was happening in Wuhan, China. It seemed pretty localized to that region…

Well, here we are now, many of us working from home. Fear, anxiety and anxiousness are a daily reality for some. A mask and hand sanitizer are must-haves when you head out to the grocery store or to pick up medications. Local small businesses have largely been decimated by lockdowns and restrictions; the juggernaut Amazon has grown even bigger; UPS and package delivery drivers have become new friends.

As of the writing of this column, worldwide, 1.7 million have died from COVID-19 and there are 81 million cases. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, others have seen salary cuts. Humanity on the whole has been tested in ways it had not seen in a century. Here in North America, a global pandemic has not only tested our kindness and tolerance, it has revealed a lack of logic and a level of selfishness on a surprisingly larger scale than one could think imaginable.

With all the above in play, governments, public health authorities and industry regulators all entered a game without a definitive playbook to plan responses from. Canadian construction faced full lockdowns in some regions and customized lockdowns in others. One thing that was telling for our news team is for an industry that is regularly seen as a laggard when it comes to innovation, a large part of it wanted to keep working and innovated on the fly to make its worksites safer according to new pandemic-fighting rules.

In a year that was unprecedented for all, construction in Ontario experienced a particularly dark December with five construction worksite deaths in one week starting on Dec. 11. This year caused many of us to pause and reflect on what truly is important in our lives because we had to slowdown and lockdown. These deaths, all clumped together over a matter of six days, were stark and hit hard. On a personal note, it also brought back memories of my heading out to north Etobicoke to cover the Kipling Avenue swing stage tragedy on Christmas Eve 2009 when four workers plunged 13 storeys to their deaths.

As we processed the dark December deaths of this year some of the questions from 11 years ago were still in play: Was there a rush on the site to get work wrapped up before Christmas? Did weather play a factor? What kind of site and companies were involved — legit or underground?

However, those old questions had new ones in the mix: Did COVID-19 fatigue play a factor? Have tighter health and safety regulations on site caused timetables to be impacted to the point of rushing? Are people more distracted than we think thanks to the pandemic?

Questions will be asked. Investigations will wrap up. Recommendations will be made. Construction will build on. The question will be, how? Will there be lessons learned and applied from these recent deaths?

Construction remains inherently dangerous. Humans remain fallible. The key to this dangerous mix remains, in the end, with all of us, from project owners all the way down the construction pipeline. As with the pandemic, neutralizing and avoiding these jobsite deaths could come down to one, simple thing — looking out for each other.

Happy New Year to everyone from the DCN-JOC news team.

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