Workers formally have the right to refuse unsafe work in Ontario but on condo sites downtown construction continues, often with questionable sanitation and no rules to monitor those coming and going
Every morning, while most Torontonians are isolating themselves in their homes to guard against further spread of coronavirus, Ray puts on his construction boots and heads to work. Ray is an electrician, working on a construction site downtown with hundreds of other workers.
Ray has a young child and family members who he says are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to health issues. He is worried about being exposed on the job.
“My wife is not happy about it,” he says. “She’s been working from home for a week now. My daughter is home from daycare due to social distancing. We have had many discussions about when it’s time to walk away.
“It’s very difficult to hear from medical professionals and politicians that the best thing we can do to beat this is stay home, [and] then to essentially go about business as usual.”
Workers formally have the right to refuse unsafe work in Ontario. And the premier has said that anyone who feels unsafe should leave. Some unions have called for a two-week shutdown. But on construction sites large and small across Ontario, work goes on despite the coronavirus.
On sites that range from only a couple of people to 500 workers, and often with questionable sanitation, construction workers are interacting with each other every day. While working conditions vary, it is nearly impossible to enforce physical distancing while performing some on-site tasks, workers interviewed by NOW say.
John Fural is a skilled trades worker. He says companies “have not adapted despite the obvious need for more stringent cleaning, sanitizing and general housekeeping as this virus has become a part of our environment.”
On his downtown site, Fural says, “other outside contractors are attending without notice, and deliveries and people are coming and going as they please un-monitored. The site is moving about daily operations without guidance from our leadership, utilizing the same sanitary protocols as before this virus came about and disregarding all warnings of social distancing because of task requirements.
“There is no care taken to limit gathering size,” Fural continues. “There is no control verifying that the people who are showing up to work are not ill, or defining clear requirements if people have become ill to inform the workers who have a right to know what is going on. It is becoming chaos and hysteria because of so many unknowns.”
INDUSTRY GROUPS CALL FOR TWO-WEEK SHUTDOWN
The Ford government’s essential-services order – revealed on Tuesday – lists several essential construction and maintenance activities. But it goes on to cover “construction work and services, including demolition services, in the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors.” This describes virtually all construction work.
Powerful groups representing the industry are calling for a two-week shutdown – or at the very least, additional regulations. Among them is the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, an umbrella group of the carpenters’ union. The Central Ontario Building Trades Council, the largest building trades group in Canada, has also called for a two-week pause. Many large subcontractors have already ceased operations on some sites.
LiUNA, the union that organizes many construction labourers in the city, has issued an open letter to the provincial government saying it will have “no choice but to recommend the complete and total shutdown of the construction industry” unless certain issues are addressed. The letter expresses “major concern… there is no protocol for dealing with this pandemic on construction sites,” including “sanitary situations for our workers who are at risk.”
The union is calling on the government to carry out inspections to enforce COVID-19 regulations specifically.
Sean McFarling, general counsel for LiUNA, tells NOW: “If the government is going to deem construction to be essential then it is imperative that inspectors be sent out to sites to make sure they are safe.”
McFarling says that there are a number of sites currently under construction that are essential, such as the nearly finished MacKenzie Health facility in Richmond Hill, which is now slated to be an emergency COVID-19 testing facility – “but it’s absolutely imperative that our sites be safe and that the workers who are building these essential services are also protected.”
Water-main work and emergency electrical work are always essential. Then there are sites like the one that Peter, a new apprentice, works on. He says, “I’m renovating half an office that isn’t being used.”
FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
NOW reached out to Toronto Public Health about conditions on construction sites. Spokesperson Vinita Dubey’s response included “possible work-from-home options when available. When not available, it is important that social distancing practices be followed, including staying six feet apart from others wherever possible, not working when sick and practising good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. These measures are important to keep the employee protected and prevent the spread of illness in the workplace. In general, routine practices and requirements – including for sanitation – would apply during the COVID-19 response.”
Industry experts and workers say the construction industry has specific issues that are not addressed by this type of general advice. Other sites are taking new measures for worker sanitation.
Hao Di, a young construction worker on a major development downtown, says that he’s “been pulled from my normal trade duties to serve as a new safety officer on my job site.”
He says that all workers are required to answer screening questions and wash their hands before entering the site.
“We’ve now installed two sinks, expanded to six screening questions and have a full-time worker checking for wrist bands that indicate a worker has been screened. While I appreciate these measures,” he says, “I wonder if it’s projecting a false sense of security.”
CAN WORKERS JUST WALK OFF THE JOB?
Ford was asked specifically about construction sanitation at a briefing and he said specifically to workers: “If you don’t feel safe… leave the site and don’t come back.” But can they? Many workers are showing up to work though they would rather be at home.
McFarling says: “It’s easy to tell workers to walk off the site, but the reality is much more difficult than that. There are economic pressures. We are there to ensure that our members are supported.”
Workers can refuse unsafe work, but as the Ministry of Labour is swamped with COVID-related safety concerns, some are being told that they cannot refuse unsafe work if they are not at work. The ministry had not returned a call from NOW requesting comment at press time.
Some individuals and work crews are leaving construction sites, but they are not sure what kind of government supports they are eligible for once they do. According to industry experts and workers in the field, construction workers’ right to Employment Insurance or other government supports is in question if they refuse to work.
For now, many workers have no choice. Bill, a stonemason, works on a large site that allows for social distancing. “I’m just lucky not to be on a small site,” he says. “I’m going to work until I can’t. I still have rent and bills to pay. Who knows how long this is going to last? If I hear that people are sick on my site, then I will stop going. Until then, we should all take time off to try and stop this.”