November 3, 2023

Porta-potties have long been a source of frustration and anger for construction workers. They’re rarely cleaned and often filthy. They’re dark and they’re wet. They are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Most of all, they are unsanitary and unhygienic.

For many years, tradespeople have been doing everything they can to avoid using the porta-potties on construction sites. Many workers organize their entire day around how not to have to use them. Often, they hold it until they get home or until they can get to a local Tim Hortons or gas station.

Sure, the “blue lagoons” are disgusting, but until recently, they were widely accepted as an unchangeable fact of life as a construction worker.

But when the pandemic hit, everything changed. Despite disease, quarantines, fear, and uncertainty, construction workers were told they were essential and that construction must continue.

However, the workers had to continue without all those alternative washrooms. Tim Hortons was closed. So were the gas station washrooms.

We heard repeatedly from public health that hand washing was crucial and so was limiting our contact with other people. Despite those warnings, our construction workers were sent onto sites with no running water for hand washing alongside dozens and dozens of workers.

Construction workers fought through the challenges, risking their health in the process. They carried on through the pandemic. It was an emergency, and the public needed tradespeople to build and maintain the infrastructure British Columbians relied upon. They kept the lights on. They kept building homes, hospitals and schools.

But as days turned to weeks, then months, and then a year – it became clear that the poor sanitation conditions plaguing our industry were not going to get better unless we demanded better.

That call for better came from some of our oldest workers.

Hardened tradespeople who were developing urinary tract infections because they were trying to hold it for an entire day.

It came from women who were tired of having to rest their coveralls on floors covered with urine. It came from workers across the province sick and tired of the daily indignity of having to use disgusting washroom facilities.

The BC Building Trades initially launched our “Get Flushed” campaign in April 2021 — 13 months into the pandemic. It included a report on the terrible state of washrooms in the industry.

At that time, we argued that WorkSafeBC already had guidelines requiring employers to provide plumbed toilet facilities to workers unless it was not practical to do so.

We would soon find out that the word “practical” was being universally used by the construction industry to provide the bare minimum standard of toilets. Time and again, porta-potties, rarely cleaned, always smelly and without running water, were the default. No project was ever big enough or long enough to trigger a requirement for flushed toilets.

In the first two years, we worked with industry and WorkSafeBC to rewrite a guideline on the maintenance of washroom facilities. We argued for regular cleaning schedules, better lighting, ventilation and heating in winter, access to sinks with running water and flushed toilets.

There were allies along the way and good contractors who spoke up. I am grateful for their support. But overall, change did not come. And it became clear that change would not be possible from within the construction industry.

Construction is like water — it seeks out the path of least resistance — as it will always flow towards the cheapest materials, labour, and working conditions it can find to secure the bid and win the contract. Within that paradigm, clean flush toilet facilities would simply not be deployed.

So, in the spring of this year, we began work on a second toilet paper (pun intended). We looked to jurisdictions like the United Kingdom and Australia, both of which require better facilities. We developed a recommendation from Quebec that requires flush toilet facilities on construction sites that have (or will have) 25 construction workers or more. We connected that requirement with the BC Building Code definition of plumbed, which would allow for the use of toilet trailers in locations where a connection to sewer and water would not be possible.

We relaunched the campaign, and the positive response from the public and political leaders was incredible.

More than a thousand letters have been written to Premier David Eby calling for flush toilets on construction sites. The media has covered the story in a major way. And it turns out, the message was heard, loud and clear.

Last month, Premier David Eby announced the Government of British Columbia would be bringing in a legal requirement for flush toilets on construction sites with 25 or more workers.

This is a huge victory for construction workers.

Over the last three years, we have repeatedly based our case for better toilets on the occupational health and safety obligations employers have under the Workers’ Compensation Act. We have stated, again and again, that access to clean washroom facilities is a basic worker right.

It is also an issue of dignity.

Every single construction worker has a story about a bad toilet. Sometimes they use humour when they tell it. Sometimes they use gore. But underneath it all, there has always been frustration and shame.

Construction is an irreplaceable economic driver in our province. The workers and the industry contributed $25 billion to the GDP last year alone. Tradespeople train for years to get their red seal. They report to work before most people leave the house and give their time and their bodies to build British Columbia. Despite those contributions, they’ve been faced with repeated indignities when they need to use the washroom.

Flush toilets may seem like a small issue to some, but that is simply not the case. Flush toilets will have a huge impact on our industry.

BC Building Trades unions made this happen.

This was a fight worth fighting, and all British Columbians should feel proud that the people who build our province will finally have access to basic sanitation on construction sites. They deserve it.

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Brynn Bourke, who is the Executive Director of BC Building Trades.