The construction industry is starting to move again in Ontario as the shutdowns put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. Not all of them, but some. Looking at the escalation of COVID in Ontario, how the province responded and how the construction industry will be expected to adapt can provide valuable insight into what the industry can do to to be set up for success in the future.
A History of COVID-19 in Ontario
After the first presumptive cast of COVID was seen in Ontario on January 25, 2020, it didn’t take long for matters to escalate. Here is a brief overview of what has happened in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic, based on a timeline from Global News.
Image borrowed from The Chronicle Herald.
Less than two months after the first case was reported, the first COVID related death happened in Barrie. One day later on March 12, Premier Doug Ford closed public schools for two weeks after the March Break holiday. Within one week, recreational programs and public spaces were closed, the federal government encouraged Canadians abroad to return home and on March 17, 2020, Premier Ford declared that Ontario would be entering a state of emergency.
Image borrowed from Maclean’s.
On March 23, the emergency closures extended to all non-essential businesses. At this time, construction projects were still not on the list. The rest of March followed an increase in responses and cases respectively with schools closing until at least May, outdoor space closures extended into April and the Provincial state of emergency being extended as well.
March was the month of construction as concerns over health and safety standards on sites were brought into the public. Unions, journalists, contractors and even members of the public spoke up on social media and whatever public outlet they could about the working conditions on-site. Enforcing social distancing, providing sanitation stations that were up to standard and the disinfect shared spaces were all concerned directly related to the industry. The closures of public offices that typically conduct inspections and hand out permits also brought up concerns about the safety of sites themselves.
The month of April brought more closures and extensions. Non-critical industrial construction projects were added to a revised list of non-essential businesses that must close. The state of emergency was extended, once again. By the end of April, Ontario had over 15,000 cases of the virus.
The tide shifted slightly on May 1 when it was announced some essential construction projects would be allowed to open if they followed strict guidelines.
By the 10th of May, provincial parks were open for daily visits while school closures were once again extended. Non-essential businesses could offer curbside pick up. The US-Canada border closure would be extended. Ontario schools will be staying closed for the rest of the year. The Ontario state of emergency has been extended until June 2. But, there is some light shining through as Ford begins to release the first stages of his reopening plan.
This doesn’t mean that the pandemic is over, but we may see more action out in the province in the future.
Image borrowed from National Post.
The Effects of COVID on the Construction Industry In Ontario
There are many ways that the pandemic will be felt in the construction industry and it will be felt for a long time to come. Changes in on-site safety standards, public awareness of working conditions and spaces and change in health benefits could all be coming after COVID.
Outside of actual impact on the daily lives and rights of construction workers, the lasting effects of supply chain interruptions, a shrinking reserve of materials and widespread closures and cancellations of projects will shape the industry for the coming months – if not years.
Changes to Construction Sites: The New Standard
Many questions about the construction industry in Ontario at this time are about the new COVID-19 standards for construction sites.
Under Ontario law it is the duty of employers to keep employees safe and free of hazards. All workers should remember their right to refuse unsafe work and are encouraged to seek help from the ministry’s Health and Safety Contact Center if they feel their employer is not complying with the OHSA and its regulations.
In a statement by David Frame – the director of government relations for the Ontario General Contractors Association – the legal requirement of companies to do what is reasonably required to maintain a healthy and safe site is enough to cover all new standards. Because of this, there were no real changes to the law itself.
Instead, it falls to business owners and employers to step up to meet the new baseline. Keeping a healthy and safe construction site simply demands more now than it did a few months ago.
Image borrowed from The Star.
Communication Between Employers and Contractors During And After COVID
As always communication is key to running a safe construction site. Because of COVID, this communication must include not only what is being done on-site but the additional changes on the back end to keep contractors safe.
1. Establish and maintain a COVID-19 Pandemic Response Plan and communicate this plan to all employees.
A copy of this plan should be posted and available to employees at all times. The Canadian Construction Association has online resources to help employers create a Pandemic Preparedness Plan.
2. Encourage open communication among all members of the work environment to keep everyone informed about changes.
Employees should always feel welcome to voice concerns – no matter what their job is. General contractors and site supervisors alike are going to be concerned about this pandemic and how it is impacting their job. Everyone should feel welcomed to ask questions.
3. Educate employees about sick days and address the rhetoric around taking sick time.
The construction industry doesn’t stop and neither do contractors. Taking a sick day is almost unheard of. The adjustment to staying home when ill is almost an upheaval to the entire industry’s work ethic. Employees should be educated as to why it’s important to stay home. Companies and team leaders should start challenging the views on sick days. Paid sick days as a norm could be an outcome of this pandemic and construction companies can lead the way by having this conversation now.
Safety has always been top of mind in the industry. COVID being a virus and not a construction-specific hazard does not change this. According to OHSA guidelines, policies need to be posted which outline anything including on-site sanitation standards, information regarding work schedules, communications regarding social distancing and resources for how employees and contractors can report an illness.
Enforcing Social Distancing On Construction Sites
Social distancing of two meters is advised as per the Chief Medical Officer and other public health officials. Construction is usually a business that involves many working bodies. A construction site could be looked at as a type of ant hill or bee hive: Many different bodies each with their own job or role.
Because of social distancing, construction companies may need to stagger breaks, reduce non-essential contractors on-site and stagger start times. Social distancing regulations should be taken seriously especially for projects that are being completed in public spaces.
By-laws have been introduced by a number of municipalities to reduce leisure activities in public spaces and to enforce social distancing. They are laws that should be concerned by construction workers working in public spaces.
Image borrowed from Waterloo Chronicle.
Sanitation on Site
Many Ontario construction sites have begun to embrace the new standard of sanitization on-site – something that may have been a long time coming. Running water and better washroom facilities are one way that the industry has been forced to implement wide-scale changes. The normal facilities on-site simply do not meet the requirements the COVID has created.
Aside from facilities, disinfectant of shared spaces, disapproval around sharing tools and encouraging operators to stay secluded to a single piece of equipment are also helping to make construction sites cleaner.
Ontario Construction Will See Changes For Years To Come
The construction industry in Ontario will face many challenges in the coming weeks, months and years. It’s predicted that the recovery of the construction economy in the US could lag behind other industries after this pandemic. There’s no reason for Ontario – or Canada’s – construction to be any different. This prediction comes from reports that cancellations and postponements of projects will come later as businesses review their budgets and finances.
Projects that were scheduled to start later this summer may see delays announced in the coming weeks. Aside from cancellations, impacts on supply chains and material stores will also impact the industry.
Ontario Construction is Starting Back Up
Ontario is beginning to slowly open back up starting on May 19, 2020. Construction is a part of this Stage 1 plan and projects are permitted to continue as long as they meet the criteria as explored above. This is good news for the province and the industry as a whole.
Image borrowed from CBC.
A Lot To Learn For Construction Moving Forward
The biggest takeaway from the past few months is that people – construction employees in particular – are way more adaptable than we may think. The industry has stepped up – or stepped down – when needed, has adapted to new safety standards and has continued to keep our roads safe and buildings secure throughout a global pandemic.
As the Ontario construction industry starts back up again, it’s important to remember that this is not a sprint but a marathon. Premier Ford noted in his conference that now is not the time to rush forward. “We cannot let our guard down now.”