Squamish builders reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure on construction sites | Squamish Chief

Squamish builders reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure on construction sites

Social distancing, hand sanitizer and hand washing stations some of the reported ways employers keeping workers safe, they say

As avoiding COVID-19 has become a daily part of life in Squamish, construction workers and their employers have been grappling with how to navigate challenging new job conditions.

Since the provincial health officer issued advisories asking people to adhere to frequent hand-washing and to stay at least two metres away from each other to avoid contracting COVID-19, some construction workers have voiced concerns about their job sites.

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hand washing
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Locally, The Chief has heard complaints of a lack of handwashing stations, unsanitary porta- potties, regular violations of the two-metre distance rule, the sharing of tools and visibly sick workers on the job.

Amidst these concerns, some workers are saying that construction sites should be shut down.

However, local builders and employers say that it's possible to keep work going and keep construction workers safe.

Edward Archibald, president of Accorde Properties, said that he's been implementing a variety of measures to ensure the provincial health officer's advisories are being followed on his projects.

Accorde oversees the Vantage residential building that's being built at Chieftain Plaza.

Archibald acknowledged it is a challenging situation.

"It's...difficult...to undertake," said Archibald. "I know some projects will adhere [to COVID-19 safety precautions] and some won't. That's just the nature, unfortunately, of the construction business, which is part of the reason why you're hearing so many complaints from workers not feeling safe."

Employers have to make the extra effort to create a safe environment.

In the case of the Vantage project site, Archibald said his company was thinking ahead when it came to the pandemic.

"We saw the problem was coming and so we acted on it," Archibald said.

Realizing it might be hard to get hand sanitizer and washing stations, he said he started looking to the movie and entertainment industry for solutions.

The company was able to obtain hand-wash stations that are used for music festivals or movie sets and had them installed on the site.

The company also reached out to Gillespie's Fine Spirits, which has converted much of its beverage operations to making hand sanitizer in wake of the pandemic.

He said regulations require hand-wash stations in work areas. In areas of the site where it's not possible, hand-sanitizer is deemed an acceptable solution.

As a result, hand sanitizer is distributed throughout the site, which also has two portable hot water hand-wash stations by the porta-potties, Archibald said.

Handrails are also regularly wiped down with ammonia, he added.

Concerning keeping to the two-metre distancing rules, he said workers are asked to work apart from each other.

The nature of the jobs at this stage of construction of his project allow for workers to work on opposite sides of a unit, he said.

For jobs like window-fitting, which require partners, Archibald said it's possible to use equipment to reduce the need for close contact.

He also said it is possible to change the method of fitting so that one person is on the outside and another is on the inside, thus allowing the glass to separate them.

Archibald noted that different approaches are needed depending on what stage of construction the building is at. As it gets closer to completion, the company may have to re-evaluate their methods.

In a follow-up message, he wrote that working within the new guidelines requires the commitment of the owner, the contractors, and workers.

"It's a collaboration like we have not experienced, and something I hope will lead to better conditions on site moving forward," said Archibald.

"It's unfortunate a worldwide pandemic leads to this kind of focus on site hygiene, but it's something we should all be striving for."

Gurdial Haer of Garibaldi Electrical Contractors said that his workers are also taking extra precautions.

"So far everybody is well respecting it," said Haer. "It's a pretty serious thing."

He said that there may have been a few cases where workers haven't been willing to work during the pandemic, but that this has been the exception rather than the rule.

He said workers wash their hands before entering the site and after leaving.

"We're wearing our N95 masks around and also we wear our synthetic gloves," said Haer.

On occasions when workers have to be closer than two metres, having both parties wear masks reduces the risk, he said.

N95 masks are capable of filtering out particles as small as bacteria and viruses.

Chris Atchison of the BC Construction Association, which represents about 1,500 contractors, said safety should come first.

"There are stringent requirements on sites at the best of times. And in these COVID-19 times, it's ramped up the attention to new protocols that should and absolutely must be adhered to onsite. There is no wiggle room on that," said Atchison.

"If sites can't comply with those directives of the social distancing and worksite distancing, then they need to recognize and...either adjust their workplace conditions or put the safety of the workers first and not operate their sites at this point in time."

However, a blanket ban on construction isn't the goal, he said.

"To say that all construction should be shut down is not the solution that we're looking for. We're asking and will continue to provide information to workers and contractors so that they can best protect themselves in the industry that needs to keep going at this time."

In the days since construction workers have been coming forward with complaints around the province, the BC Building Trades Council, an advocacy group for workers, released a statement about poor working conditions.

construction worker
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The Chief then reported WorkSafeBC was starting a new 'inspectional initiative" to address the issues.

The trades council greeted this as good news.

"This is a positive first step to addressing a longstanding issue," said Andrew Mercier, executive director of the BC Building Trades, in a statement. "It's important that WorkSafeBC takes construction site sanitation seriously using the tools in their toolbox: inspection, enforcement and compliance."

But Mercier added that the issue is far from resolved, and the BC Building Trades will remain vigilant.

The trades council, however, has noted that there can be innovative solutions to the problems.

For instance, it praised one employer who'd repurposed laundry tubs into hand-washing stations for workers.

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