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Decision to exempt health-care, transportation and ongoing residential projects ‘a compromise,’ says Ryerson epidemiologist
Ontario’s decision to partially shut down the province’s construction industry to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a “compromise” that makes sense, says a Ryerson epidemiologist.
Prof. Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus in the Faculty of Community Services, says Ontario’s approach “make a lot of sense, generally.”
“Like a lot of these decisions, they are a compromise, and that’s not a bad thing,” said Sly. He also said he views the increased government scrutiny on the construction industry as a positive development for worker safety.
Ontario’s reduced list of essential businesses halts private sector industrial, commercial and institutional construction. It also exempts critical public sector infrastructure, such as health-care and transportation projects. Ongoing residential projects may continue, but new ones have been put on hold. The mandatory closures come at the recommendation of public health officials to further restrict the physical distance between workers and will last at least two weeks.
“Because the focus is on [construction sites]…you’ll see bright shiny new little sinks and hot water tanks and lots of soap handy all around,” Sly said.
However, Sly said he thinks some construction work can still pose a significant risk for the spread of COVID-19.
“You’ve got people who are working in such a way that they will cross paths with one another. It’s difficult to avoid that if you’re working on a high-rise building on the 16th floor — you’ve got only a small amount of room to work there.”
If construction workers maintain physical distance from one another, Sly said, then that can help decrease the risk of transmission. “But people tend to work in [groups] — that’s the nature of the work — so it’s going to be difficult to do that.”
And he points out that, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Ontarians have the right to refuse unsafe work.
For weeks, as businesses across the province shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, construction work continued. Ontario’s initial list exempted most construction, despite widespread concerns about worker safety in an industry with often crowded worksites and varying workplace sanitation standards.
Jonny Coleman is one worker who agrees with the changes. Coleman is a site supervisor for a large-scale demolitions company that takes down high-rise buildings in Toronto. He has been working on-site half the time since mid-March.
The province’s latest move forced most of his company’s sites to shut down, which Coleman said he is happy about. “I think it took a little too long to shut everything down,” he said. “For example, one job we had, we would have 15 to 20 guys all working next to each other.”
Coleman said he isn’t worried about the sites that remain open. “There are fewer guys there…and everybody is keeping their distance, so I’m not too upset about those still being open.”
Coleman said he considers himself lucky that his job allows him to work more remotely than some of his colleagues. “If I was doing the actual work and having to work within a few feet of somebody for my whole shift, I would not be happy about that,” he said. “But anybody who does decide to go to work, I can appreciate why they’re doing it.”
There have been some COVID-19-related changes to Coleman’s sites. For instance, “guys are wearing their masks for their whole shift” and “the washrooms are definitely a lot cleaner,” he said. Coleman has also been asked to not come into contact with any of his workers, who have been directed to video call him with questions instead.
At first, Coleman says that he wasn’t impressed with the province’s handling of construction work amid COVID-19, but he’s since changed his mind.
“This is something I never thought I would say, but [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford and his government are doing a very good job,” he said.
The nature of Zach Budge’s job put him in a difficult position. Budge is an industrial millwright who works for a small installation and maintenance company based in the Greater Toronto Area. He installs conveyors in distribution centres and his job requires him to work closely with others.
On March 23, Budge walked off the jobsite he was working at due to its “unsanitary conditions.”
“There were 200 contractors on a site sharing six [portable toilets], no running water and nowhere to properly wash your hands,” said Budge. “Normally on a site of that magnitude, the lead contractor will bring in bathroom trailers with running water where we can properly wash our hands before and after break.”
Budge said his employer “wasn’t happy, but he understood.” Budge remains employed and is being paid through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.
Coleman said he thinks the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — of $2,000 per month for up to four months — is a good amount but doesn’t view it as enough to survive comfortably on, especially for some of the construction workers he knows, who have a lot of dependents. He said he plans to keep working for as long as the province permits.
Budge stands by his decision to walk off his jobsite. “It’s always hard to make a decision like that because you’re essentially saying no to a paycheque. But at the same time, my health and my family’s health are far more important,” he said. The site Budge left has since been shut down by the province, which deemed it non-essential.
Budge thinks the shutdown should have happened earlier, when the province declared a state of emergency. “As far as I’m concerned, ‘new construction’ is not an essential service,” he said. “When we’re trying to control a virus that is passed through people, the worst thing is to have 200-plus contractors working in close proximity breathing and sweating on each other.”There are nearly 1.5 million construction and trade workers in Ontario.