The Current

Shut down construction sites until COVID-19 threat has passed, says wife of worried worker

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many construction sites are still open, despite difficulties in maintaining social distancing for workers. We’ll hear from the wife of a worker worried about his health, and ask why sites aren’t being shut down.

Union leader says industry needs to find safe way to continue essential work

A construction worker climbs up scaffolding in downtown Vancouver last month. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
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The wife of a construction worker says there are inadequate protections against COVID-19 on the northern Alberta site where her husband works — and she wants the site shut down.

"There's no [cleaning products] or anything for the workers to use to even wipe down the equipment from somebody else using it on the previous shift," said Patricia James, whose husband works away from home in a 5,000-person camp in the Athabasca oilsands region, north of Fort McMurray. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 301 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alberta.

"When he goes to work in the morning, there's five people in the same pick-up, and the pick-up has been used by other people, and they're not cleaned," she added. James lives in Newfoundland, but her husband commutes to Alberta to work 10 days at a time, before returning for 10 days off.

The Current is not naming James's husband or the company he works for, out of fears for his employment. 

Sean McKenney, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, says construction sites often require workers to pair up for safety reasons, throwing a wrench into social distancing measures. 1:19

James said that the workers are living and working "shoulder to shoulder," but haven't been provided with masks or sanitary wipes.

"With a camp like that, once that virus COVID-19 gets in there, it's got to run like wildfire," she  told The Current's Matt Galloway.

If the camp is not shut down, she's worried that "people are going to die."

"You have to draw a line somewhere," she said. "Does the company take a hit? Or do human lives?"

Construction sites have remained open in many parts of the country during the COVID-19 outbreak, as other businesses shut their doors and send staff home. By Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 2,500 confirmed cases in Canada.

The fact of the matter is a lot of the work that we do, road building, civil infrastructure, is critical.- Andrew Mercier

In Ontario, which has almost 600 confirmed cases, the industry has not been listed among non-essential businesses ordered to close by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

Andrew Mercier, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades Council, said that construction has also continued in many locations experiencing shutdowns around the world.

"The fact of the matter is a lot of the work that we do, road building, civil infrastructure, is critical to keep supply chains going and keep the lights on," said Mercier, whose organization represents about 30,000 union workers in B.C. 

But he said the industry needs "to find safe ways to do that work," such as scaling back camps, and focusing on work that is critical.

High levels of anxiety

Union vice-president Joseph Mancinelli said that social distancing wasn't feasible on large construction sites.

"I'm not sure how you accomplish that when you have sites that have 300-500 people working on a construction site ...  touching railings, touching everything," said Mancinelli, vice president of the Labourers' International Union of North America, for Central and Eastern Canada.

He said his members are "experiencing levels of anxiety that they've never experienced before."

Construction workers worried about COVID-19 are 'experiencing levels of anxiety that they've never experienced before,' said Joseph Mancinelli, vice president of the Labourers' International Union of North America, for Central and Eastern Canada. (Matt York/Associated Press)

"They're going home to their families and ... wondering on whether or not they're bringing this deadly virus into the home."'

Sites should be shut down until the COVID-19 threat has passed, he said.

"We really need to hunker down, shut the industry down for a couple of weeks. Let's see those numbers drop. Let's put people out of the areas of risk — and then I think we're going to see some progress."

Mercier pointed out that construction work is "incredibly diverse," from remote camp work like that done by James' husband to residential buildings in towns and cities.

But he said the concerns he's heard from workers have been similar, and centred on sanitation.

If you decide to leave, the chances are you're not going to get back, so here's your livelihood at stake,- Joseph Mancinelli

"There are sites where the hand-washing station is literally a hose taped to a two-by-four, and a bar of soap for a hundred people," he said.

"There are very good laws on the books right now about hand-washing stations, but there hasn't been enforcement and  there hasn't been compliance."

'A terrible situation to put workers in'

Announcing non-essential business closures Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said construction workers who did not feel their employers were providing adequate protection should "leave the site and don't come back."

On Tuesday, Ford announced inspectors would be visiting sites, and shutting down those deemed unsafe for workers.

Mancinelli said he doubted many workers would feel confident about leaving a job site and finding new employment.

"If you decide to leave, the chances are you're not going to get back, so here's your livelihood at stake," he told Galloway.

That leaves workers with a choice between their health and the health of those around them, and providing income for their families, he said

"This is a terrible situation to put workers in."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Falice Chin.

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