August 6, 2020

WHEN THE GOVERNMENTS OF Quebec and Ontario shut down all non-essential construction in March and April due to COVID-19, some in the industry wondered if B.C. would be next.

At one point, it seemed a sure thing.

“It is the inevitable next step,” proclaimed Reliance Properties CEO Jon Stovell in a story for the Western Investor newspaper, under the headline “B.C. construction should brace for shutdown.”

But the “inevitable” never happened ― at least not by government orders. BC Building Trades executive director Andrew Mercier believes that had a lot to do with a concentrated and deliberate effort by WorkSafeBC to educate employers about their obligation to comply with not only the orders of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry but also with existing occupational health and safety regulations.

“These regulations have been on the books for years and in many cases infamously ignored,” said Mercier. “We know this is true because that’s what construction workers told us.”

But the other reason there was no shutdown, said Mercier, is because of outstanding contractors like Vancouver Pile Driving (VanPile), Bay Hill Contracting, Oceanview Mechanical and many others that went above and beyond to keep their workers safe.

SAFETY BY THE SEA

VanPile is one of the largest marine general contractors in Canada, specializing in heavy civil and marine construction and maintenance, including docks, bridges, concrete floats, pile driving, stone columns, dredging and rock placement. The company employs more than 100 trade workers in its operations division, including members of Pile Drivers, Divers, Bridge, Dock and Wharf Builders Local 2404 and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115. Thirty per cent of trades workers are apprentices.

When COVID-19 struck, VanPile put in place more than a dozen new measures to abide and exceed public health orders. These included:

  • Assigning tasks to accommodate physical distancing;
  • Creating one-way passages and installing convex mirrors in high-traffic areas to allow workers to see when they needed to yield to others;
  • Staggering lunch breaks to limit the number of people in the lunchroom;
  • Requiring health and travel declarations;
  • Facilitating remote work where possible, and applying work-from-home policies that included mandatory safety inspections;
  • Increasing the number of hand-washing stations;
  • Increasing the frequency of cleaning; and
  • Holding daily meetings with members of the management team to ensure information was appropriately triaged for workers, clients and suppliers.

In cases where physical distancing wasn’t possible, workers were required to wear respirators with P100 filters, which are a non-medical commercial grade alternative recommended by Health Canada when N95 masks are not available.

“We avoided the use of disposable N95 masks as there was a shortage and we didn’t want to use up supplies that health care workers predominantly used,” said Kim Stanley, VanPile’s division manager for health, safety, environment and quality.

VanPile also paid attention to the mental health of isolated remote workers during the pandemic and offered virtual mental health first aid training, weekly mental health check-ins and meditation sessions.

Adopting best practices paid off and VanPile has never stopped working.

“We worked with all stakeholders to maintain a safe working environment for our trade workers, subcontractors, staff and owners,” said John Zuk, VanPile’s division manager for land and core. “We proved to the industry that we are handling the pandemic effectively ― so much so that we have increased our work capacity in the second quarter.”

POSITIVE LEGACY OF A PANDEMIC

If there was a bright side to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bay Hill Contracting found it. And it’s not just because the company specializes in lighting.

“We’ve actually discovered better ways to do things by virtue of the constraints that have been put on us,” said Bay Hill partner Gord Myren.

Bay Hill installs and upgrades street lights, traffic signals, highway signs, high mast lighting, as well as intelligent transportation and power systems. Motorists can see the company’s vast portfolio of work when they drive over the Port Mann, Golden Ears, Pitt River and Ironworkers Memorial bridges, and on streets and highways from Hope to Pemberton.

And, when it’s safe to travel by plane again, you’ll also see Bay Hill’s work on the taxiways and runways at YVR.

Bay Hill employs members of the Labourers International Union of North America Local 1611 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213.

When Henry declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19 on March 17, Bay Hill was already in the process of implementing work processes that aligned with best practices.

“We’ve spent a lot of time developing our in-house app that we nicknamed ‘the BUD,’ which handles everything from safety to time cards to invoicing,” said Myren. “In times like these the benefits of going digital are clear.”

Supervisors provided sign-off on behalf of other workers on a single electronic device like an iPad, eliminating the sharing of pens, paper and mobile devices.

Myren says Bay Hill also immediately developed a company policy informed by public health orders, government recommendations and WorkSafeBC health and safety regulations. For example:

  1. Community tools, vans and common areas were sanitized daily and a log was kept of each cleaning;
  2. Jobs that were either difficult or impossible to complete while maintaining a physical distance of two metres were postponed or eliminated; and
  3. Workers all carried hand sanitizer produced by a local distillery.

Like so many other construction contractors, Bay Hill realized site sanitation was the biggest priority, with hand-sanitizer in deep demand and short supply. Bay Hill contracted Surrey based
Dragon Mist Distillery to produce an initial 20 gallons of 70-per-cent alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Workers were all given their own supply, with five gallons on reserve at all times.

Perhaps most importantly, says Myren, Bay Hill checked in with workers to ensure they felt safe.

“We are primarily a subcontractor,” Myren explains. “If anyone enters a site and they aren’t comfortable with how health and safety is being managed, they can refuse unsafe work. We’re trying to make everything as safe as possible, and we aren’t going to judge anyone who feels unsafe. We’re all navigating this for the first time together and we want to do our best as an employer and a contractor.”

WASH STATIONS SCARCE? BUILD YOUR OWN!

What do creative contractors and industrious construction workers do when they can’t source hand-washing stations for their job sites?

They build their own!

That’s what Oceanview Mechanical did at six condominium sites in Victoria, where workers built eight hand-washing stations to help stem the spread of COVID-19. The general contractors provided soap for all the washing stations.

“We’ve set up laundry tubs with running water because, well, we’re plumbers,” says Mick Smith, co-owner of Oceanview Mechanical. “We’re doing all we can.” Oceanview Mechanical’s 40 employees are members of the United Association Local 324.

In addition to re-purposing laundry tubs into plumbed hand-washing stations, Oceanview Mechanical followed the recommendations of B.C.’s public health officer around physical distancing.

“We have no more than one person working in a suite at a time,” said Smith. As well, the company delayed installation of all one-piece bathtubs until the recommendations are lifted because installation is a two-person job.

Henry’s recommendations required physical distancing of two metres, along with frequent hand-washing and prescriptive cleaning.

BY CORRY ANDERSON-FENNELL