Construction employers must not become complacent
By Grant Cameron
Ontario’s construction industry has coped relatively well with the COVID-19 pandemic, but workers and employers must remain vigilant in the coming months and not become overly complacent.
That was one of the key messages delivered by speakers and several panelists during a Jan. 28 webinar, called Mitigating the Spread of COVID-19 in Construction, that was hosted by RESCON and other residential and infrastructure construction industry organizations and partners.
“While we all wish we could just flick a switch and get rid of COVID, we understand that we need to remain vigilant every day,” RESCON VP Andrew Pariser said in remarks to open the webinar.
The pandemic has caused strain, he said, but the construction industry continues to have a good track record and has become a leader in developing best practices for keeping workers safe during the pandemic.
“I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we have to keep fighting complacency, we have to fight COVID-fatigue.”
The event included remarks from provincial Labour, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton, a presentation by Chief Prevention Officer Ron Kelusky, and a panel discussion.
“We can’t be complacent,” Kelusky said in his remarks during the webinar. “We can’t let our guard down.”
Transmission of the virus has been relatively low in the construction industry since the pandemic began, he said, but new variants are much more easily transmitted than the original strain so workers and employers must take extra precautions and ensure high-touch areas are properly disinfected.
Kelusky said workers must continue to protect themselves by wearing PPE and maintaining physical distancing.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he noted.
McNaughton, meanwhile, said he appreciates the partnership and support that the construction industry has shown his office and the provincial government throughout the pandemic.
“We really have worked very closely together. Thank you for all of your efforts to keep workers safe on jobsites. I know that all of you have made numerous health and safety improvements and you continue to do that.”
The government’s “unwavering priority” is the safety of workers and the public at large, he said, and more than 500 inspectors are in the field every single day, with another 100 having recently been hired.
Mike Sherrard, founding partner of Sherrard Kuzz LLP, provided a legal update during the webinar and talked about testing, enforcement, liability and vaccinations.
Employers should make sure they screen workers before they go onto a jobsite, he said, and once they are on a site, hand-washing, masking and physical distancing should continue to be priorities.
Peter Smith, chair of the board of directors of the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario and executive director of the Heavy Construction Association of Toronto, moderated a discussion that featured health and safety representatives from the residential and infrastructure sectors of the industry.
John Savoia, director of health and safety at the Powell Group, said COVID-related regulations provide clear guidance on how businesses can operate and protect workers and, while there are minimum requirements, there is nothing to stop employers from going above and beyond what’s required, something construction companies have done since the beginning of the pandemic.
Writing a COVID-19-related health and safety plan is a good first step, he said, but employers must also make sure workers understand the plan.
“You can build the most comprehensive policy on the planet, but it means nothing if you don’t communicate it to those who need to read and understand it the most, which is the workers.”
Jason Ottey, director of government relations and communications at LiUNA Local 183, said construction is being watched and the union is telling its reps, stewards and workers to follow the rules.
The industry has been able to stay open because labour, management and government are working collaboratively, he said.
Signage is also important on a worksite to remind workers to socially distance and wear masks, he said.
Jon Kitancevski, director, health and safety at The Daniels Corporation, said the company fights complacency by having superintendents walk jobsites on a daily basis to ensure rules are being followed.
The company also sent a letter to all its staff and trades, informing them that masks must be worn at all times in offices and on sites, and highlighting the repercussions for not complying, which starts with a written warning, followed by a suspension for non-compliance, and then a termination.
“We are no longer splitting hairs,” said Kitancevski.
Darrin Husack, environmental health and safety manager at ConDrain Group, said he doesn’t foresee any issues with construction workers refusing to be vaccinated.
He is concerned about a third wave, however, and a possible spike in cases as workers might let their guards down and become complacent with COVID-fatigue setting in and a vaccine on the horizon.
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