For over a week now, construction work, firms, and trades across British Columbia have been given the all clear from the provincial health officer to remain operational, as they have been classified as an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, this means all types of construction projects in the province can continue.
Over the latter half of March, construction contractors have had to quickly adapt to changing mandated health policies for their work sites, but the latest procedures implemented since the end of last month have had some semblance of longevity so far.
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Satiner Sidhu, the co-chair of the Infrastructure Construction and Procurement Group at Clark Wilson LLP, says no more than 50 people are to be in the same space under any circumstances, and just like general physical distancing practice, employees should maintain a distance of two metres where possible.
In elevators and construction hoists, the capacity in the cabin is limited to no more than four people.
In-person meetings are to be reduced, and on-site meetings should be held in open spaces or outside.
For enhanced sanitation practices, there needs to be an increase in the number of hand-washing stations with signage to identify their location, and all common areas and surfaces must be cleaned daily.
Several municipal governments in Metro Vancouver — such as Coquitlam, Richmond, and White Rock — have extended their construction site work hours to 9 pm. A few municipalities already allow construction to continue until 9 pm, while others are assessing this relaxation.
By extending work hours, construction crew shifts and specific work amongst certain teams and subcontractors can be staggered to reduce the likelihood of health risks.
But Sidhu says the current guidelines do not clearly address the procedures that should be taken when an on-site employee tests positive for the coronavirus.
“Unfortunately, it’s not clear from the guidelines on what to do in those circumstances,” she told the Urban Development Institute on Friday.
However, based on the general advice of health officials, the practice of 14-day self-isolation would kick in, and employers would advise all workers of the situation and whether they also need to self-isolate as a pre-caution. She says the BC Centre for Disease Control may also intervene and take direction on how long the construction site should be shut down.
“At the end of the day, the public health officer and WorkSafe BC have wide power to impose sanctions on a worksite if these protocols are not being followed,” she added.
Under the emergency essential services declaration, construction employers and their subcontractors are immune from liability for damages from the direct or indirect exposure to COVID-19, as long as they follow the preventative workplace health safety guidelines.
“This gives those continuing to operate their construction sites with some assurance that they won’t be tagged with liability for their outbreak as they are simply carrying on their essential service,” said Sidhu.
“But let’s say that if a general contractor upon learning about the outbreak did not inform workers or tried to conceal the information, that amounts to gross negligence, then the protections would be removed.”
Chris Atchison, president of the BC Construction Association (BCCA), says construction sites and employers — both contractors and subcontractors — need to have open channels of communication, and review their protocols and adjust them where necessary.
“In the event that they need to close temporarily to get up to standard and get the materials that they need, they should make themselves familiar with all the financial resources and supports that are being offered to individuals and companies, because there are supports available,” he said.
To assist the construction industry, BCCA has created a virtual hotline to gather observations, questions, and requests for guidance, with a dedicated team to support these initiatives.
“We’re working with our industry benefits provider, the BCCA Employee Benefits Trust, to find ways we might offer relief for member companies and their employees,” saidA tchison.
“We have to do as much as possible to support our entire industry during this crisis and nothing can be construed as enough or an over-reaction. It’s just necessary and the right thing to do.”
As the pandemic is still in its infancy, there is no telling whether additional restrictions will be required in the weeks and months to come.
Significant office building developments are occurring in downtown Vancouver, including the redevelopment of the Canada Post building into an Amazon corporate office for as many as 10,000 employees. It is set for a phased completion between 2022 and 2023.
Elsewhere in BC, major energy infrastructure construction projects such as the Site C hydroelectric dam and the projects associated with LNG Canada have seen their on-site workforces downsized to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst their employees.
So far, the provincial government has indicated the pandemic has not affected the timelines of the new Pattullo Bridge and the SkyTrain extension of the Millennium Line from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street. Both projects are still set to begin construction by the end of 2020, with the project teams working to mitigate any possible delays as a result of the current crisis.
For local-level applications, some municipal governments are now only intaking certain types of development permit applications through temporary virtual processes. As well, rezoning public hearings in some cities have been suspended, but some cities are hoping to continue this virtually so that they can keep the economy going now and in the future, during the post-pandemic recovery period.
“Our hope is that all construction work sites can remain operational. As a significant contributor to the BC’s economy, construction is essential, and across the province right now, BC’s construction sector is building the social housing, hospitals, schools, universities, critical roadworks and infrastructure that will play a key part in our recovery in the years ahead,” added Atchison.
“With our economy severely impacted by this pandemic, it’s vital for BC that we do everything we can to keep our sector and our labour force working.”