Here’s what construction companies must do, and should consider doing, in the age of COVID-19
As the COVID-19 curve flattens, and construction activity resumes, every company will have its own unique response as to how they ensure employees are safe on the jobsite.
Keith P. Burkhardt, a lawyer with Sherrard Kuzz LLP, Employment & Labour Lawyers, explained what’s regulated and what’s considered a best practice for construction companies in the wake of the pandemic, during a webinar hosted by the Ontario Road Builders Association (ORBA).
“We’re encouraging employers to be the best employer out there and to be a leader in their field,” Burkhardt said, who is a member of ORBA as well as several other construction-related associations. “Understand, as well, you shouldn’t feel like you’re being pushed around, and it is your choice to follow best practices, not a legal requirement.”
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have general duties for construction work sites. They are required to provide sanitation facilities and a reasonable amount of drinking water.
“Beyond those two things, there are no stated obligations from a sanitation perspective for a construction employer,” Burkhardt said. “However, that doesn’t mean that an employer should just do those minimum amounts. You do still have that general obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure safety of workers.”
For sanitation facilities, employers must provide at least one toilet for every 10 to 15 employees and a cleanup facility or handwashing station for every two toilets.
“The supervisor from the company is required to inspect that sanitation system at least once per week and keep a record of it,” he said.
The act requires the toilet to include a lid, toilet paper holder and supply of toilet paper, sanitary napkin disposal and there must be a structure surrounding the toilet.
“This isn’t just what we think of in the past as a 5-gallon pail with a board on top,” Burkhardt said.
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Drinking water must be provided via a municipal source or a container with a drain system.
During the pandemic, safely supplying water without increasing the risk of transmission is particularly important, Burkhardt notes.
For example, some companies are encouraging employees to bring their own bottles to limit contact with a communal source of water.
“That doesn’t alleviate the obligation to ensure there’s water on site, but it may mean fewer people are using it,” Burkhardt said.
Sanitation during COVID-19
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Burkhardt explained the Ministry of Labour has placed importance on the sanitation of jobsites.
“It is one of the few areas, from a sanitation perspective, where the ministry actually has legal requirements for contractors,” he said.
“As a contractor and dealing with roadbuilding jobsites, you ought to be paying attention to this and know the ministry is paying more attention to this than they have in the past.”
Above and beyond
While the Occupational Health and Safety Act only directly addresses toilets and water from a sanitation perspective, employers should consider a comprehensive plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on a jobsite.
“You probably don’t want the ministry showing up on your jobsite on a regular basis and you probably don’t want the bad public relations or the bad press you may get if there’s significant complaints about what’s happening on site,” Burkhardt said.
To start, companies may consider jobsite signage and communication with employees about a COVID-19 plan.
“We’ve seen some companies set up websites, other have direct communications, like handouts, about how the company is addressing COVID-19,” Burkhardt said.
As well, when anyone arrives on site, they should be asked questions to determine if they could spread the virus.
“When anyone shows up at the jobsite … are you asking them questions to ensure you’ve done your due diligence to find out if this person is a potential risk for transmission of COVID-19?” he said.
Burkhardt also recommends creating policies for the sanitation of tools, equipment and high touch surfaces on the jobsite. In the interest of contact tracing, jobsite management may consider regularly sending the same crews to the same site.
“If you are informed there is someone on your site that tests positive for COVID-19, how well will you be able to go back and say with whom they interacted with, in the week or two weeks prior to that?” he said.
From a workflow perspective, staggered start and end times also helps to minimize contact between a workforce.
“It doesn’t need to be an hour or two hours differences. It could be 10 or 15 minutes. Think about breaks and lunches. Are people able to spread out?” Burkhardt said.
PPE and COVID-19
Burkhardt also notes the Health and Safety Act doesn’t address personal protective equipment (PPE). However, jobsite management should consider their duty to protect health and safety and form a strategy for best practices.
“My encouragement is if you have workers that want to wear a mask, encourage them to wear a mask,” he said. “And I think it’s important for you to stand up and make it known you are OK with that. There’s a social stigma around wearing masks.”
As well, while there are no rules about employees working within 2 metres of each other, employers should consider taking additional steps to minimize risk of transmission.
“There are some tasks where the individuals must be within 6 feet (2 metres) of each other,” he said. “If they’re working within 6 feet of each other, it’s particularly important to encourage masks. Is it required? No. Is it a best practice? Absolutely.”