August 25, 2020

Executive Director’s Message by Andrew Mercier

BC Building Trades executive director Andrew MercierTHE PAST FEW MONTHS have been marked by the emergence of the coronavirus and an unprecedented public health crisis. Construction workers have been at the front line of the pandemic, continuing to do the critical work necessary to build and maintain our public infrastructure and keep B.C.’s economy afloat. I have no doubt that had the construction industry shut down, we would be in a very different situation. The hard work of construction workers has prevented the public health crisis from becoming a full-blown economic crisis.

The pandemic brought sanitation issues on construction sites into the spotlight. Suddenly, unsanitary conditions that most workers would never complain about, like unclean porta potties and a lack of handwashing stations, were headline news. Different provinces handled this situation differently. Quebec and Ontario shut down their construction sectors so that the industry could “re-tool” and  adopt stronger sanitation practices. In many ways this caused more harm than good. Shutting down the industry meant that the contractors with the best sanitation practices were treated the same as those with the worst, and that workers who could have worked in a safe, physically distanced manner were sent home.

B.C. took a different approach. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was inundated with complaints about unsanitary conditions on worksites across B.C. The bulk of these complaints came from non-union construction sites. Rather than call for the industry to shut down, as the Building Trades had done in Quebec and Ontario, I took these complaints directly to Minister of Labour Harry Bains, and Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC’s vice-president of prevention. Their partnership, and willingness to listen to the concerns of workers, led WorkSafeBC to create a special inspection initiative for sanitation in the construction industry.

These inspectors fanned out across worksites in B.C. and focused on ensuring that sites followed the recommendations of Dr. Bonnie Henry for preventing coronavirus transmission on construction sites. This initiative, coupled with the quick action of our contractors to secure the safety of our members on sites, was critical in keeping the construction industry open. This approach meant that the government could declare construction an essential service, and allow good contractors to continue operating, while focusing resources where they were needed.

If it wasn’t for the quick action of WorkSafeBC and the dedication of Building Trades contractors to creating a safe work environment for our members, our province could very well have followed Quebec in shutting down the industry — a move that has created significant problems in restarting their economy.

As we move now into the second phase of this crisis, we need to focus on economic recovery while continuing to be vigilant against a potential second or third wave of the virus. If there is any legacy from COVID-19, it ought to be a renewed focus on the importance of a safe workplace and sanitation practices on sites.