The Canadian construction industry took some heavy body blows at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis but found its legs quickly and appears to be on the road to recovery.
In the early days of the pandemic, many sites across the country were idled, and production decreased. Projects were put on hold as builders tried to figure out how to cope with the new normal.
Quebec was hit particularly hard. In April, 40 per cent of the construction workforce there, 108,000 workers, were off the job for about six weeks as the province locked down sites. Ontario didn’t fare much better back then, with construction employment dropping by 93,800 jobs in April due to a month-and-a-half restriction on private-sector industrial, commercial, and institutional projects. In British Columbia, construction was allowed to continue, but larger ventures, like the Site C dam, were scaled back by BC Hydro.
The Industry Has Bounced Back
Today, though, the industry has bounced back. Production levels are still not where they were before the pandemic, but signs are positive. Fortunately, there have been relatively few cases reported of construction workers getting sick from COVID-19 as a result of working on a jobsite.
How did construction do it?
For the most part, the industry remained ahead of the curve by ensuring there were standardized measures in place to protect workers. Early on, the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) released protocols for all construction sites that outlined prevention, detection, and response measures to minimize the crisis’s impacts.
“Our position is that compliant sites should be open and those that cannot consistently comply with measures and guidelines of public health authorities should shut down,” CCA President Mary Van Buren explained.
Industry Pivoted Quickly
The industry pivoted quickly when the pandemic hit. In B.C., a number of employer associations and companies joined forces to develop new safety practices and protocols to work safely through the pandemic. Physical distancing practices were put into effect. Schedules were adjusted, splitting construction crews into day and night shifts where possible.
The industry deployed facemasks for workers. Additional handwashing and hand sanitizing stations were established at worksites. Work crew transportation was limited to fewer workers per trip, and some worksites introduced non-contact temperature screening to identify possible symptomatic carriers.
Construction workers were also assigned to work in “pods,” allowing them to work with a small group. If any worker believed they had been infected, only the workers in that pod needed to self-isolate.
Organizations Responded Quickly
In Ontario, industry organizations were also quick to respond, providing sector-specific guidance to prevent the spread of the virus. The industry also worked with the province to ensure best practices were followed.
Construction hours were extended to accelerate projects and allow companies to stagger shift times. With fewer workers on site at a given time, physical distancing was made easier. An order by the province adjusted local noise bylaws so companies could work extended hours.
Richard Lyall, executive director of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON), commended the government for extending the hours and allowing additional construction activity to continue.
“This approach balances the health and safety of Ontarians as well as construction workers across the province, while at the same time ensuring that much-needed housing is still being provided for thousands of people,” he said. “There are many people who are waiting for their homes to be finished in the next few weeks. We already have a significant housing crisis in Ontario, and most of these homeowners who have sold their homes are at risk of being left on the street without these measures.”
Safety is Paramount
Going forward, workers’ health and safety will continue to be paramount for the industry, noted RESCON VP Andrew Pariser.
“Our industry health and safety has always been and will remain our industry’s top concern,” he said. “The proactive and stringent measures that our sector implemented on-site during COVID have been successful. Our rapid response and across-the-board implementation have kept workers safe.”
The moves drew accolades from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who gave a shout-out to the industry. Meanwhile, Chief Prevention Officer Ron Kelusky noted that construction was a leader from the beginning.
To keep workers safe, the industry in many provinces has embraced a federal COVID Alert notification app. Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador have started using it. The app runs in the background on a smartphone and exchanges a digital handshake with other smartphones. If an app user tests positive for COVID-19, the individual can key in a number that alerts other users who may have had contact with the infected person.
With the construction sector being one of Canada’s largest employers, it will be a major contributor to Canada’s economic recovery. Sandro Perruzza, chair of the Construction & Design Alliance of Ontario, said the industries had realized early that workers’ health and safety was the foundation of any economic recovery.
“Focusing on the 3Ts (testing, tracking, tracing) will allow Canada to stop reacting and start managing COVID-19.”