September 6, 2020

A WORRIED WORLD watched with growing concern in January as reports came out of China of a new, highly contagious coronavirus.

Hopes that B.C. might avoid the mysterious new virus were dashed near the end of January when provincial health officials confirmed the first B.C. case.

The seriousness of the situation struck home when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11. By mid-March, B.C. joined jurisdictions around the world in declaring a public health emergency.

Then, the news came in waves: The NHL was shut down, international travel was discouraged, seniors care homes were under siege, social distancing became part of the common vocabulary, restaurants and bars were shut down, workers were sent home to work, and more than 130,000 British Columbians were thrown out of work.

Unlike many jurisdictions, B.C. declared construction an essential service. Construction would continue while much of society shut down around it.

With that, BC Building Trades affiliates were presented the life and death challenge of how to protect their members, their retirees and their communities from a deadly virus experts were only beginning to understand.

Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers got to work quickly. In conjunction with Teamsters and the Labourers Union, it produced its Modified Work-Site Operating Protocols, a guide on how to work safely during the pandemic. Physical distancing, frequent hand washing and clean washrooms were essential basics.

“We got on that right away to try and ensure that we had the best safe-work practices for our membership,” explained business manager Brian Cochrane. “We sent that off to WorkSafeBC to have them vet it, because there was a lot of panic coming on very quickly at the beginning of all this. We wanted to make sure that we had a document that our smaller contractors and members would be able to access.”

Many Local115 members are fortunate to work in semi-isolation inside the cabs of the heavy equipment they operate.

Big camp jobs like LNG Canada and the Site C Dam construction were especially trying as they included the challenge of transporting workers to and from camps, lodging them in camp homes, where they ate, exercised and enjoyed downtime in common facilities.

Workers were screened before traveling to the camps, but when some at Site C showed symptoms after arriving, special measures were needed.

“They set a trailer aside for isolation and put some protocols in place for the workforce. This put immediate financial pressure on the contractors who bring members to camp to work, something they could not do while self-isolating.

“Hydro came up with the funding and the mandate that if somebody does come down with symptoms, their health has got to be a priority. They’ve got to be in self-isolation and they’ve got to be paid. That was a big deal,” Cochrane said.

Local 115 members and retirees were not just worried about their jobs and their health ― they were also worried about their financial futures.

“When you see the markets tumble about 30 per cent over a couple of weeks, the panic sets in,” Cochrane said. “One of the first thing we did was send correspondence to the retired members to let them know that the investment strategy that we have has a very small allocation to the equity markets.”

Apprentice training and journey upgrading also needed to be overhauled to protect health and jobs. The IUOE’s Maple Ridge training centre was temporarily shut down and the union shifted as much training as possible online. Tickets for online courses such as WHMIS Compliance Certification, Pipeline Construction Safety, Confined Space Training and others were already available online and others were made available. Crane operator training simulators already in operation, were used as much as possible.

Sheetmetal Workers’, Roofers and Production Workers’ Union Local 280’s first priority was getting worksite conditions safe for members, said business manager Jim Paquette. Contractors were generally quick to respond and make the changes necessary to improve workplace safety.

“They have staggered starts, allowing only so many people in break rooms at a time. Having the cleaners go around in between breaks to sanitize common equipment in the shops. It’s all been working really well.”

Sheet metal work is done on construction sites and in fabricating shops, so a variety of changes were needed to keep workers physically distant and clean.

Paquette said some members with possible COVID-19 symptoms went into isolation, but no members have been diagnosed with the virus.

Some jobs were slowed down, and some sites closed for a short time, while health and safety measures were put in place.

“In March, employment took a little bit of a dip. For the most part a lot of them remained working,” Paquette said. “Now those that were initially off, and sites that were initially closed out of an abundance of caution are now back online. If we are not at 100 per cent, we are in the high nineties.”

Sheet metal workers also came to the rescue in the early days of the pandemic when personal protective equipment was in short supply. Organizations across North America were sewing protective face masks for at-risk health-care workers, but without the tiny piece of aluminum that fits over the bridge of the nose, the masks were ineffective.

The Sheet Metal Workers Association in Washington, D.C. co-ordinated locals across North America in producing the three-by-quarter-inch strips made of .032-inch thick aluminum. Sheet Metal members volunteered in shops around B.C. and students at the Port Kells training centre were also involved.

“We have made and distributed more than 22,000 aluminum nose strips for people all over the province. Local 276 on Vancouver Island is looking after the Island, but on the Mainland we have been sending them all over the province to Terrace to Prince George, Castlegar.”

Something as simple as a small strip of aluminum makes a mask fit better, and makes a health care worker’s job safer.

“You try to think of what everybody can do to help,” said Paquette.

Requests for the strips came in rapidly. One group of Okanagan midwives had zero personal protective equipment, so they made their own, with the help of the unionized sheet metal workers.

One of the first jobs for the Labourers International Union of North America Local 1611 was moving its wide variety of training courses online, said president Nav Malhotra.

“We implemented more training online. We are going to adapt,” Malhotra said when reached for an interview.

One of Local 1611’s members, working in the automobile parking lot sector, tested positive for COVID-19, though it was not known how or where it was contracted. The member has recovered. Some other members in road building needed to self isolate, but none were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Local 1611 made certain that members would not lose benefits because of sudden loss of hours. Members who were losing dental coverage at the end of March had their benefits extended until dentists returned to work, while members who might have lost benefits due to working too few hours had their hour banks topped up.

And requirements for filing pension applications were relaxed while members were restricted due to COVID-19-related measures.

Local 1611 also reached out to the community to help out where it could.

“It’s great to see some of our members volunteering at Victoria and Vancouver food banks,” Malhotra said. “We have donated a monetary amount as well.”

Helping out the community beyond its own membership is important to Local 1611. Although Local 1611 has seen some sectors slow down, especially with big jobs like Site C and LNG Canada, it has seen increases in other areas such as security and traffic control.

If COVID-19 containment measures continue working, employment on the big jobs should return,” Malhotra said. “All of these projects are going to be going ahead.”

He added, “These times are different, but at the end of the day we are going to come through stronger and better.

The International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local #2 was immediately concerned for its high-risk retirees.

“They are in the high-risk group. We called every retiree and every disabled member to see if they needed any help,” said Local 2 president Geoff Higginson.

Most retirees were in good circumstances, but Local 2 wanted to be certain there would be help available if their circumstances changed.

“We asked our other members to keep care of their old buddies they had worked with.”

Of equal concern was the health and safety on the job.

“We had members that were working in situations where there was not proper social distancing. The sanitation was not effective enough. We liaised with WorkSafeBC to get them down to job sites. We spent a lot of time protecting our members’ health,” Higginson said.

Bricklayers work in enclosed spaces in refineries, so they needed personal protective equipment to stay healthy.

At some other work sites, the most risk was found in the lunchrooms and bathrooms. Breaks needed to be staggered, and cleaning was needed more frequently.

Changes also had to be made at the Parkland Refinery in Burnaby where buses that bring workers in from the parking lot needed to carry fewer passengers.

“They were on buses with people right behind them. It was not good social distancing on the buses they used to bring people in from the parking lot.”

Some Local 2 members — including some at a cement plant — had to be isolated for a time, but Higginson said he does not believe any Local 2 members were infected with COVID-19.

Higginson himself had to isolate along with 17 other people after a student at the training centre learned he had been in contact with a health care professional who tested positive.

“My concern was for my mother, so I stayed away from my mother, and I distanced from my wife and children for two weeks as well. So far, we are clear. Nothing has happened to us.”

Plans were already in place to move more training online, and those plans were moved forward more quickly once the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared.

“As far as teaching goes, we had to make a fast move into online training for apprentices. We are using Survey Monkey and email and other ways of doing their classroom and theoretical training and the testing.”

“As we went through the two-week period where we were self-isolating, we were doing this online. I was getting the tests up on Survey Monkey.”

The training facility was re-opened when things settled down, and it seemed physical distancing and more cleaning were effective in preventing the spread of the disease.

“By making the groups smaller, it means we have more facilities in the province that will be able to get designated by the ITA as a training facility for our crafts.”

Now, the challenge is to remain vigilant and maintain protocols to protect the health of members.

“There is some concern that there will be a second wave in the fall. This is when things will get real busy on the industrial side. We cannot get complacent. We have to stick with the plan.”

Higginson said Local 2 worked with the Building Trades and WorkSafeBC to address complaints about unsafe worksites.

“All of us when we come in contact with someone from a job site, and they tell us they have got one portable toilet on the 12th floor, they’ve got one down at the bottom and they don’t have one for women, that really pisses us off.”

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 993 wanted to be certain members would not lose benefits during a pandemic. So they moved quickly to pay members’ health and welfare self pays for May and June, said Local 993 business manager Glen Hilton.

“We had some members on self pay and did not go to work. We decided to pick up the tab. We are paying the amount.”

Local 993 also reached out to retirees who might need help. “Our organizer is calling up retirees and offering prescription and grocery pickups etc. We have members watching out for other people.” The COVID-19 response has caused some temporary shutdowns like on the Kemano tunneling project.

“There has been layoffs, project shutdowns. We are doing the Kemano tunnels and that is completely shut down. You cannot run any tunnel-boring machines without being in close proximity to people, so that is shut down as well.”

A lot of time and attention has gone into ensuring safe work site conditions.

One of the risks is with outside contractors, because Local 993 members do not know if they are observing safe practices on other jobs.

As B.C. opens back up, the challenge will be to keep members from letting their guards down.

“We have just got to continue on. Complacency is what will bring on the second wave,” Hilton said.

That means work sites will continue to be monitored and members advised about their rights not to endanger their health or safety.

“We tell the members: ‘If you have got a problem, let us know. There is us, there is WorkSafe. You don’t have to do unsafe work. You need the right PPE. The contractors seem to be in tune with things right now.’”

Meanwhile, Local 993 had to cancel its annual golf tournament fundraiser for the food bank.

“Our golf tournament in June raises about $2,500, but we cannot have that again so we will figure out another way to do that.”

By David Hogben