After Ontario’s economy was hammered by COVID-19 in 2020, its economic recovery this year will be led by home construction even though the pandemic has changed almost every aspect of the industry. There are many new rules that home builders must now abide by to keep workers safe. But they are nothing that cannot be accommodated with some pre-planning and careful decision-making.
As a starting point, all home construction firms must develop a comprehensive COVID-19 Safety Plan to ensure the risk from the virus is mitigated. This plan should be posted in a prominent location at the workplace, detailing cleaning and disinfection protocols, capacity limits, face coverings, physical distancing and the provision of personal protective equipment for everyone entering the site.
While these plans do not have to be submitted to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD), creating them can help make every workplace safer. If you need help developing these plans, online webinars are available, provided by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services.
As well as general advice, the ministry offers guidance about plans to specific sectors of the economy. For the construction industry, suggestions include:
- making hand washing or sanitizing stations easily available;
- disinfecting facepieces and other personal protective equipment;
- bagging work clothes when bringing home laundry;
- conducting meetings outdoors;
- cleaning tools before and after use; and
- cleaning toilets frequently.
The steps that need to be taken to ensure that proper physical distancing is maintained will vary from one job site to the other, but there are some common things an employer can do to ensure that happens. Those include:
- staggering start times, breaks and lunches;
- restricting the number of people on-site and where they are assigned to work;
- controlling site movement (by limiting the potential for workers to gather, including personnel in material hoists and site trailers);
- limiting the number of people who use elevators and hoists at one time; and
- controlling the on-site contact between workers and outside service providers, for example with the coffee trucks that visit the site.
While employers always have an obligation to maintain clean worksites, that duty is even more important during a pandemic. Workers at every job site should have access to soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, as well as washroom facilities. The sharing of hand tools and power tools should be avoided, or those items should be sanitized between uses.
If a worker has been exposed to COVID-19 at a workplace, or if a related claim has been filed with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, employers should notify the ministry and their workplace joint health and safety committee health and any trade union they are involved with.
And keep in mind that employees legally have the right to refuse unsafe work. If health and safety concerns are not resolved internally, a worker can seek enforcement by filing a complaint with the ministry’s Health and Safety Contact Centre.
The Canadian Construction Association has also released standardized protocols for all Canadian construction sites. These guidelines are much more detailed than those issued by the MLTSD, and are well worth the attention of everyone involved in home construction.
- Having workers travel to the site using individual modes of transportation (vehicles or bicycles) and making additional parking arrangements available.
- Encouraging workers to change out of their work clothes before entering their vehicle at the end of their shift, then washing those clothes upon arriving home.
- Monitoring the entering and exiting of the worksite to ensure physical distancing is maintained.
- Prohibiting all non-essential individuals access to the site.
- Limiting the use of shared devices such as coffee machines, water fountains and microwave ovens, and having them sanitized between uses.
- Replace taps, paper towel dispensers and garbage cans with hands-free models, as well as replace door handles with hands-free options, such as foot-pull devices.
- Gloves should be worn whenever possible while on the worksite but they should be treated the same as bare hands in terms of minimizing unnecessary touching of anything on-site and the user’s face.
The MLTSD lists various five control measures or steps that employers can take to reduce the risk of COVID transmission in the workplace. Only three directly apply to the home construction industry, starting with engineering controls. Those include physical changes that allow workers to maintain a safe distance from each other as they work and ensuring that all work sites are properly ventilated.
The second is administrative controls, which involve changing how workers interact with each other. Limiting the number of people on a job site, disinfection protocols and staggering start and finishing times are three ways to achieve that.
The last and most common control is the mandatory use of personal protective equipment, such as masks or face shields. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) demands that employers take every reasonable precaution to protect workers from hazards posed by infectious diseases, and that has always included masks when there is a danger of airborne infection. More guidance about using masks in the workplace can be found here.
COVID-19 has radically changed the home construction in Ontario, but the industry is marching on. As Dave Wilkes, president and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association, recently noted, “Health and safety are paramount on construction sites and never more so than during this pandemic. Our members have implemented and continue to enforce measures and policies that meet or exceed all provincial requirements.”
Builders and other firms involved in the home construction industry are welcome to contact me for legal advice about building during a pandemic.