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Construction workers build a condominium tower in Toronto, on March 26, 2020. A union representing Ontario's construction industry said its workers cannot use the COVID Alert app because they can't have phones on job sites.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The federal government says it is looking at ways to improve its new COVID-19 smartphone app, including the possibility of a “wearable” component after concerns were raised by a union representing Ontario’s construction industry.

The recently launched federal app can alert users if they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. However, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), which represents 130,000 construction workers across Canada and 95,000 in Ontario, said last week its members cannot use the app because it requires a smartphone, which are prohibited on job sites for safety reasons.

Joseph Mancinelli, international vice-president of LiUNA, instead urged the government to adopt a made-in-Ontario device called TraceSCAN that includes “wearables,” which feature technology that can be worn on a bracelet or carried in a wallet.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office said Wednesday that Ottawa understands that certain workers, including those in construction, may not be able to use the app in their workplaces. But her spokesman encouraged them to use it in their day-to-day lives and in public settings, such as stores, restaurants and parks.

“As a result, this will benefit all of their co-workers,” Cole Davidson said. “For example, if a construction worker receives a notification that they may have been exposed to COVID-19, they will be provided with public health advice that will help keep their co-workers safe.”

Victoria Mancinelli, LiUNA’s director of public relations, said the rollout of a contact tracing app “should be clear and concise,” but the construction sector is limited because wearables are not yet available.

”We are encouraged to hear that the government is looking into adapting wearable technology and we look forward to continuing this critical conversation that is imperative to mitigating spread on site and ensuring the safety of all workers,” she said in an email.

Mr. Mancinelli previously said that the federal smartphone app would omit hundreds of thousands of workers who are prohibited from carrying their phones on job sites. With construction sites employing anywhere from a handful of workers to several hundred, Mr. Mancinelli said that without a wearable device that can determine who workers have been in close contact with, sites may be shut down as soon as one case is reported.

The COVID Alert app is available to anyone through both the Apple or Google app stores, though the service it provides is currently only applicable to those living in Ontario. At a news briefing in Ottawa last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is in discussions to extend the app to Atlantic Canada next and then to other regions of the country.

“This is another tool to protect your health,” Mr. Trudeau said. “The more people use it, the better it can trace and therefore slow the spread of the virus.”

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