Construction labour groups raise concerns over job site safety amid outbreak

TORONTO — Construction labour groups are raising concerns about working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic as companies and governments respond with a range of strategies.

The Ontario Construction Consortium, a group that advocates for construction workers, on Tuesday called on the Ontario government to suspend work on construction sites for two weeks to protect workers.

“It makes no sense that you can’t have your neighbour over for a cup of coffee yet construction sites are expected to continue operations,” said executive director Phil Gillies in a statement.

The group’s call comes after Premier Doug Ford deemed much of the construction industry as an essential service and exempt from a forced business shutdown.

The province’s decision is in contrast to Quebec, which on Monday suspended all construction activity except for emergency or security services.

Quebec’s move came after the province’s two man construction unions last week asked Premier Francois Legault to shut down the industry because not enough was being done on job sites to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Both FTQ-Construction and the Conseil provincial du Quebec des metiers de la construction (International) stated in a letter to the premier that the recommended hygiene measures aren’t being done, including handwashing options, proper distancing, and shared tools, all of which make workers vulnerable.

The B.C. Building Trades Council has also raised concerns over working conditions, but has not yet called for an outright shutdown in the province.

The group said Sunday that it had heard from construction workers that people were showing up to work visibly sick, and that workers don’t have adequate access to washroom facilities, running water, soap or hand sanitizer.

“Workers are pleading for help — this is urgent,” said executive director Andrew Mercier in a statement.

While most construction activity is still allowed, some companies are taking a more cautious approach.

Mattamy Homes, one of Canada’s largest residential builders, suspended all customer-facing and site-based operations as of March 18 after Ontario declared a state of emergency.

The company said it made the decision “in the interests of safeguarding the health and safety of our customers, employees and business partners,” though it is committed to getting customers into their homes “as quickly as conditions permit.”

Brookfield Residential said in a statement that since home construction has been deemed an essential service, it can continue to “safely build homes” that homebuyers are counting on.

“In most markets, the home construction industry has been identified as an essential service, so what this means to us is that we can continue to safely build homes and operate our sites and sales.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.

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