Construction unions raise spectre of shutdown as concerns over workers’ health grow

Labour leaders are urging the federal and provincial governments to take immediate steps to protect the health and safety of construction workers and the public during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America says many construction sites are not following proper protocols on hand hygiene and social distancing designed by health authorities to try to slow the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

“If these issues are not resolved in an expedited manner, we will have no choice but to recommend a complete and total shutdown of the construction industry,” warned Joseph Mancinelli, LiUNA international vice-president, in a letter this weekend to the federal and provincial labour ministers.

The Canadian Construction Association is also calling on Ottawa to introduce consistent measures to protect workers across the country, amid a growing chorus of voices saying it is too risky for job sites to remain open.

The construction industry, one of Canada’s largest employers, with more than 1.5 million workers, is out of step with much of the rest of the economy. Theatres and other cultural venues have drawn their curtains, many office employees are working from home and most retail outlets with the exception of grocery stores and pharmacies have shut down.

CCA president Mary Van Buren wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the weekend, saying there is an urgent need for health authorities to provide guidelines on best practices to protect workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ms. Van Buren also asked for details on how companies and individuals can get access to financial relief. “This is critical to provide assurances that business owners are not asked to decide between health and safety on one hand and a business failure on the other,” the letter says.

Labour leaders have asked Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton to strengthen the enforcement of hand hygiene and social-distancing measures by dispatching ministry staff to inspect every construction site in the province.

“Labour and management groups are talking to the government about keeping the industry open if at all possible, but not at the expense of the health and safety of the workers,” Pat Dillon, business manager of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, said in an interview.

Mr. McNaughton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Van Buren’s group is also recommending that work continues on construction projects. Many workers, however, are pushing back.

Christopher Morgan, a construction worker who lives in Caledon, Ont., has started an online petition, calling on Ontario Premier Doug Ford to shut down every construction project in the province. It had more than 14,300 signatures as of late Sunday afternoon.

“We want to be at home in this time to be with our families as well,” Mr. Morgan said. “There is no need to hurry along these projects while risking our own families and ourselves.”

Some employers have taken their own action to protect the well-being of employees.

Mattamy Homes, North America’s largest privately owned home builder, has temporarily suspended construction work at all of its sites in Canada until March 31. And in Victoria, Rob Tournour Masonry Ltd., a small company with 45 employees, shut its doors last Wednesday and implored British Columbia Premier John Horgan to mandate an immediate full shut down of all non-essential businesses in the province.

“I urge you to be the first provincial leader in Canada that is applauded for having the courage to make this decision,” Mr. Tournour says in his letter to the Premier, which he shared with The Globe.

The B.C. government has not responded to Mr. Tournour. But it issued a bulletin on Sunday, with guidance for construction sites during the pandemic: no more than 50 people in the same space, additional hand-washing stations and a distance of two metres between employees.

BC Hydro is scaling back construction activities on the Site C project near Fort St. John, focusing only on essential work.

Work on other major public-sector projects – Toronto’s Eglinton light-rail transit line and others awarded by Infrastructure Ontario, the procurement arm of the provincial government – has been continuing.

Infrastructure Ontario is acting on the best advice of the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and other leading public health officials, spokesman Ian McConachie said in an e-mail.

“We expect that work will continue in a manner that protects everyone on IO construction sites and the public,” he said.

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