June 28, 2021

Occupational health and safety regulations require flush toilets, but the rules are not enforced

PHIL VENOIT HAS BEEN TALKING about the sorry state of portable toilets on construction sites for at least 20 years. And he has the documentation to prove it, thanks to the sharply worded letter he sent to Joan Smallwood in 2001 when she was the provincial minister of labour.

“I could draw upon years of personal experience in the construction industry to embark on a lengthy, disgusting, descriptive diatribe,” wrote Venoit, who was the assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 230 at the time.

Venoit had heard from workers building the $116 million diagnostic and treatment centre at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria that the eight poorly supplied, rarely emptied and hardly cleaned porta-potties serving the well over 100 workers on the site were often overflowing with waste and that workers had resorted to bringing their own toilet paper from home. Further, none of the “putrid” toilets had wash basins.

Twenty years later, literally nothing has changed – except for the additional risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“When you factor in a global pandemic and the absolute necessity of proper hygiene to fight this disease, we’ve actually gone backwards,” laments Venoit, who is now business manger for IBEW Local 230.

For BC Building Trades president Al Phillips, there is a stunning irony in having construction workers use dirty porta-potties on multi-year public mega-projects like hospitals. Yet it is the current reality, prompting a new Building Trades campaign in support of flush toilets for construction workers.

“After all this time, when we have potable running water, that we would go back to building sites like hospitals and care homes, with the workers on site not even having anywhere to wash their hands or use a proper washroom? It’s ridiculous,” said Phillips.

Phillips is business manager and financial secretary for the United Association (UA) Local 170, which represents plumbers. He said porta-potties “fly in the face of what my brothers and sisters in my own union do for a living.”

Phillips notes that some sites do offer mobile, trailered flush toilets and even fully plumbed facilities that are connected to infrastructure – but only for the managers.

“What message does that send?” he wonders. “That we care about the sanitation needs of the managers, but not the trades? It also proves flush units are practical when the contractor wants them to be practical.”

Construction site sanitation is a health and safety issue. As far as Phillips is concerned, proper washroom facilities are as essential as hard hats, steel-toe boots and safety harnesses. “The plumber protects the health of the nation” was the slogan adopted by American plumbers in the early 20th century. It was aimed at reminding the public of the importance of proper sanitation – a sentiment that these days seems to be lost.

It’s time to #GetFlushed

Frustrated after decades of seeing occupational health and safety standards for construction workers ignored, the BC Building Trades commissioned a leading occupational health and safety consulting firm, the Harwood Safety Group, to review sanitation practices in construction in B.C.

The report not only found that the industry’s reliance on portable, non-plumbed washroom facilities – porta-potties – to be “wholly inadequate,” but that the regulations on the books that require flush toilets for construction workers are routinely violated.

In fact, only in exceptional circumstances when plumbed facilities cannot be provided “because of the nature of the workplace” should porta-potties be permitted. The report found that there is little in “the nature of the workplace” that prevents the use of trailered, washroom units equipped with flush toilets.

“When you can drive by an active construction site and see in plain view the washroom trailers for the managers, but portapotties for the construction workers, it’s pretty obvious that the rules aren’t being followed,” said Brynn Bourke, BCBT’s interim executive director. “We’re calling on WorkSafeBC to support and where appropriate require flushed toilets on construction sites – in other words, just enforce the regulations.”

She points to the prevalence of multi-year construction projects with 100 people or more on site that still, despite the regulations and the widespread availability of trailered facilities, choose porta-potties for their workers.

“We compared the cost of providing portable toilets to providing mobile, trailered flush toilets on a mid-size construction site of 100 workers and found it costs as little as $1 a day per worker to ensure protection from biological hazards.”

Washroom trailers have hot and cold running water, and heat and illumination. These are the optimal conditions for effective cleaning and disinfection. Biological hazards that may be present in poorly maintained portable washrooms include both Hepatitis A and COVID-19.

BCBT’s advocacy campaign – Let’s #GetFlushed – is aimed at highlighting the unacceptable sanitation conditions construction workers face every day. Visit the campaign website at getflushed.ca.

Just asking for the basics

The BC Building Trades was a vocal and leading advocate of better health and hygiene practices on construction sites at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, publicly calling on WorkSafeBC to enforce existing health and safety regulations for all construction workers. While the industry made meaningful changes to improve safety at the time, toilet facilities remain a sticking point, so to speak.

Jim Noon is business manager of the United Association (UA) Local 324 and president of the Vancouver Island Building Trades Council. While porta-potties are acceptable options for small residential construction jobs with only a handful of workers, they are inadequate for medium- and large-size jobs that go on for many months and even years.

“When we are building schools, hospitals, commercial buildings and condominiums, porta-potties are still being used and that has to change,” said Noon.

Noon has members who report being so repulsed by the porta-potties that they do not use the washroom during their entire shift, making them vulnerable to urinary tract infections.

One construction worker, speaking to Tradetalk on the condition of anonymity, said workers are reluctant to complain about the condition of the porta-potties because they fear a pink slip will be waiting for them the next day. Meanwhile, new workers witnessing the sorry state of construction site sanitation for the first time are conditioned to accept it.

“Everyone who starts off in construction starts off at the bottom, and you better not complain when you’re down there because you may not have a job the next day.”

The anonymous tradesperson said he’s been in the industry some 20 years and has worked on projects in Northern B.C. and Alberta, where winter temperatures can plummet to -30C. Porta-potties are frequently dark and wet inside in those conditions, making comfort and accuracy next to impossible. And even when the porta-potties have just been cleaned, waste is often deposited on the seat and surrounding area during the extraction process, he said.

As horrific as porta-potties are in general, they are uniquely problematic for people who menstruate and must change intimate hygiene products. In an industry trying to attract women and other underrepresented groups, porta-potties are not exactly a welcome mat.

By Corry Anderson-Fennell

What workers are saying…

“This is the main reason I left flagging and first aid. I need clean hands when I go for lunch. Also, I menstruate. I need clean hands to manage that. No running water means I have to bring my own bottle to wash with. I took transit to my jobs so I can’t carry a whole jug of water to drink and an extra jug to wash up, too.” – Jessie

“It’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to get construction sites to be equipped with a sink with running water.” – Bornto

“When all that a group of workers gets is one or two STINKY, underserviced, overflowing shit huts, it is a pretty vivid portrayal of the total lack of respect, contempt even, that the men representing the employer have for the hourly paid workers!” – David

“We’re all working Joes, but we should all be able to use a clean bathroom.” – Sean

“There are people who menstruate who don’t go to work on construction sites while they are menstruating because it is embarrassing and unhygienic at times with no proper running water/wash cart for hands etc.” – Miranda

“If the contractors or the customers can provide space for lunchroom trailers, then a wash/toilet car can be set up.” – David

“Why are we expected to put up with this? You know, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Surely, they could fork out for a trailer with a couple of toilets inside.” – Mike

“It’s all up to the employer how well they choose to do things. Some just point at the back part of a site and direct employees to make do.” – Moe

“I am an owner-builder and the first thing I have done is to ensure there is a proper washroom built in an accessory building. That way, when the trades come to help me build the house, they will have access to a flush toilet and sink with running water. I figure that it will be easier to attract tradespeople in this competitive market if they don’t have to use a porta-potty.” – Claire

“Been in the trades for 35 years. My first job was at Robson and Burrard. We were building an HMV and Planet Hollywood. The shitters you couldn’t get within 50 feet of without putting your shirt over your mouth and almost gagging because of the stench. They used to almost overflow and then once a week the honey wagon came to suck it all out. I thought to myself WTF? I have another 40 years of this? After a bit, I figured it out and for the next year I used to just go next door to Hotel Vancouver and use their bathroom.” – Rob