New Brunswick

COVID-19 causes concerns for construction workers

John Landry, executive director of the Construction Association of New Brunswick estimates about 15 per cent of his member companies so far have shut down their operations temporarily.

Construction association says about 15 per cent of member companies have shut down operations temporarily

Building Trades of New Brunswick president Jean-Marc Ringuette says about 60 per cent of the province's unionized trades are going to be without work scheduled to take place over the next several months. (CBC)

People in New Brunswick's construction industry are watching developments in the COVID-19 crisis with growing alarm.

John Landry, executive director of the Construction Association of New Brunswick, estimates about 15 per cent of his member companies have temporarily shut down their operations so far.

Many companies, he says, are carrying a lot of overhead costs.

"It's scary for all our members across the province," said Landry. "If it lasts only another couple of weeks, our industry will be fine, but if it's more than that you are going to see people start to close their doors forever."

While 15 per cent seems a small number when compared to sectors like hospitality, some of the province's biggest construction projects are included in that number.

Building Trades of New Brunswick president Jean-Marc Ringuette said about 60 per cent of the province's unionized tradespeople are going to be without work scheduled to take place over the next several months.

That represents around 6,000 men and women.

He cites physical distancing measures taken by Irving Oil at the company's Saint John refinery as an example.

Ringuette says physical distancing measures taken by Irving Oil at the company's Saint John refinery has reduced the regular workforce on site from about 700 to somewhere under 200. (CBC)

That reduced the regular workforce on site from about 700 to somewhere under 200, he said.

He's worried the refinery's annual maintenance 'turnaround' could now also be postponed.

"The large turnaround, I'm sure it's in question not only with the COVID–19 virus but the supply chain issues that are going to probably come after that in order to get the materials and all that to carry on," said Ringuette.

The refinery's annual turnaround creates jobs for several hundred tradespeople while pumping anywhere from $50 million to $200 million into the economy, depending on the year.

Irving Oil did not respond to a CBC request for comment on the status of the 2020 turnaround

Point Lepreau postponed

Another big project that has been postponed is a $53 million, six-week maintenance shutdown at NB Power's Point Lepreau generating station that had been scheduled to begin this month.

Ringuette said it is important that physical distancing guidelines be followed on construction sites.

But he is not advocating for a shutdown of the construction industry altogether. He said those companies that have recognized a COVID-19 safety issue have shut down already.

Union members, he said, not only need the hours, they also depend on family health benefits that can extend well beyond their employment periods, depending on the length of time worked.

The start of construction on a new school for Hanwell is another concern.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said tender plans for the project will go ahead as scheduled in "coming weeks."

In the meantime, at his daily COVID-19 press conference, Premier Blaine Higgs gave no indication of plans to shut the industry down overall.

Another big project that has been postponed is a $53 million, six-week maintenance shutdown at NB Power's Point Lepreau generating station that had been scheduled to begin this month. (CBC)

But he did issue a warning.

"Certainly, if they cannot follow the rules of the safe distancing rules, as we put in place, then they are not to be performing their duties as they normally would," said Higgs. "So if they are violating those rules, we will need to shut them down."

WorkSafe New Brunswick has a link from its website offering COVID-19 guidelines for job sites.

The only one that makes specific mention of the construction industry is under Frequently Asked Questions.

It suggests construction workers should travel separately to the work site if possible.

"If there is more than one person in the vehicle, all persons in the vehicle will need to wear surgical masks," it states. "Please note that surgical masks are for one-time use, which means that a new mask will be necessary on the return trip."

It recommends frequent cleaning and disinfecting of vehicles, suggests anyone feeling ill should remain at home, and says during breaks only one person at a time should sit in a vehicle.

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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