Ontario Premier Doug Ford is allowing construction work to continue across the province while ordering a broader shutdown of all but essential businesses to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government will order the mandatory closure of non-essential workplaces effective Tuesday at 11:59 p.m., Mr. Ford announced on Monday. The news came the same day Quebec imposed a near complete shutdown of its economy, including the construction industry, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians to “go home and stay home.”
Mr. Ford stopped short of saying whether he plans to force construction companies to idle their cranes and send workers home. “We want to work collaboratively with the construction trade,” he said in response to reporters’ questions.
But late Monday night, the government released the list of businesses it considers essential, including construction projects that support the health care, transit, energy and justice sectors as well as those in the industrial, commercial, institutional and residential sectors.
The broad exemption for the construction sector comes amid a growing chorus of voices calling on the government to shut down the sector.
On Monday evening, the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, which represents over 30,000 men and women in carpentry, drywall and other skilled trades, called on the government to temporarily halt all construction in the province.
“The situation which exists on most job sites means that work simply cannot go on as normal,” Tony Iannuzzi, executive secretary treasurer of the council, said in a statement. “Many job sites have no facilities for workers to even wash their hands using soap and hot water and ‘social distancing’ is just not possible.”
Other labour unions have also complained that the health of construction industry employees is at risk because their working conditions do not allow them to follow basic hygiene and safety regulations that health authorities say are crucial to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But the Carpenters’ group is the first to call for a shutdown.
At his news conference on Monday afternoon, Mr. Ford said he has heard the stories about construction sites with overflowing portable toilets and no hand sanitizer or running water. “There are some bad actors,” he said. “Get your act together and take care of your front-line workers.”
As for any individual who does not feel safe working on construction projects, he said, “leave the site and don’t come back.”
Many employees have done just that amid growing fear of the coronavirus – they are not showing up for work, say industry executives, adding it is just a matter of time before the industry shuts down.
“If there’s more cases, it becomes just not possible to take care of everybody’s well being enough to satisfy [a business] owner’s conscience,” John Rasenberg, president and founder of JMR Electric Ltd., an electrical and mechanical contractor based in Exeter, Ont., said in an interview.
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.
The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) says many construction sites are not following proper protocols to keep workers – and the public – safe during the pandemic. 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.
The ministry is investigating all occupational health and safety concerns, spokeswoman Janet Deline said in an e-mail response. “We are giving priority to COVID-19 concerns and other health and safety issues that may pose an imminent hazard to workers.”
In British Columbia, workers have also raised concerns. Many say they do not have access to adequate washroom facilities, running water, soap or hand sanitizer, as other labour groups have stated, and are working alongside colleagues who are visibly sick, said BC Building Trades executive director Andrew Mercier. “Workers are pleading for help – this is urgent,” Mr. Mercier said.
A spokesman for WorkSafeBC said the government agency is inspecting construction sites to ensure they are following occupational health and safety requirements.
In contrast to Ontario, Quebec is restricting construction work to emergency repairs and plumbing and electrical emergency services.
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