Building towards a new standard of construction safety
By Jack Burton
The high-risk nature of this work is pushing the industry’s OHS standards to rise to the demands of the pandemic, create robust nationwide safety programs, and tackle mental health
It almost feels like déjà vu, said MJ MacDonald, CEO of Construction Safety Nova Scotia in Halifax.
Despite the arrival of the Omicron variant, Canada’s construction sector is meeting the latest wave of COVID-19 by applying numerous workplace safety lessons learned, not just over the course of the pandemic, but from working in an environment where occupational safety is critical.
“Our industry was uniquely prepared to address COVID-19 compared to others,” she said, noting that safety professionals across the construction industry have been applying their own familiarity with risk assessment, “viewing COVID-19 through the lens of: ‘What is the hazard? What is the risk? And how can we eliminate or mitigate that risk?’”
MacDonald said that the industry is responding to the surge in COVID-19 cases, and the resulting disruptions and hazards it presents to workplace safety, with a return to basics, focusing on the strategies that helped organizations navigate the initial issues introduced by the pandemic in March of 2020.
“Certainly what we acknowledge, and what we’ve been focused on, is a return to the fundamentals: ensuring good masking protocols, good sanitation, and social distancing,” she said.
Risk of unpredictability
Despite this preparedness, the Omicron variant’s notably high transmission rate has created unpredictability in on-site safety, especially due to the role that fully staffed operations play in the construction industry, regarding both safety and productivity.
“We’re really quite struggling with the impact and being able to continue on with all work. It’s just simply not possible,” said MacDonald. “It’s having quite an impact on scheduling right now, so we’ve been struggling. It has been very, very difficult, especially because of the randomness.”
Adding to the stress caused by the unpredictability of COVID-19 absences across the industry is the high volume of workers affected by the current wave: “There are large numbers of people, either off sick or isolating. In some cases we’re hearing that numbers as high as 30 per cent of the workforce are impacted,” she said.
Vaccine hesitancy as an industry obstacle
Beyond returning to initial pandemic management protocols on construction sites, another emerging strategy to curb the workplace risks of COVID-19, regardless of industry, is the safety of having a vaccinated workforce.
Despite the protection offered by the vaccines in managing these risks, however, MacDonald said there has been some relative hesitancy amongst the construction industry.
“This isn’t a sector that’s had the same uptick in vaccinations, and so when we talk about fundamentals, we’re also talking about the need for everyone to be vaccinated — not just once, not just twice, but three times.”
Speaking to her province specifically, she cited a workforce shortage in Nova Scotia’s construction sector as one of the factors contributing to employers’ lack of stricter vaccination protocols.
“Before COVID-19 even started, there was a workforce shortage in Nova Scotia,” MacDonald explained, “and the feeling was that there is enough people who were reluctant or hesitant to become vaccinated who had the freedom to go elsewhere, meaning that companies risked losing resources at a time when they were already short-staffed.”
In light of this, MacDonald said that Construction Safety Nova Scotia has “lobbied and recommended that employers create policies for mandatory vaccination or proof of vaccination,” and fortunately, “many employers have adopted that.”
Despite admitting to some initial controversy, she is optimistic that their messaging is resonating, especially in light of current surges.
Meeting risks with resources
Pandemic or not, common threats to workplace safety in the construction industry — such as fall hazards, machine operation accidents, and environmental risks — have made effective OHS a necessary constant for ensuring both protection and productivity on site.
Helping this heightened need for safety support is a rich array of resources to help workers and employers build a safer workplace.
These include nationwide programs such as the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations-endorsed Certificate of Recognition (COR), which incentivizes employers to build a robust health and safety program by rewarding them for having on-site safety measures that are up to standard.
“The reward for having a good safety management system is the Certificate of Recognition, and that allows employers to get a 10 per cent rebate off of their accessible earnings, which is a lot of money, especially for large companies,” said Erin Linde, director of health and safety services for the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) in Vancouver.
Though it provides employers with a reason to strive toward a safer workplace, COR has also evolved into an industry standard in some parts of the country, holding value that goes beyond just compensation.
“In many provinces — like Alberta — COR is mandatory for many employers to have for bidding on work,” Linde explained.
Numerous resources addressing the specific safety needs of construction workers across the country are also available, including online “Toolbox Talks” hosted by various provincial construction safety organizations which discuss specific workplace safety issues, along with return-to-work programs to help rehabilitate workers from on-site injuries.
Tearing down the stigmas of mental health
While construction work demands a focus on physical safety, equally important, yet often overlooked, are discussions surrounding the mental well-being and psychological safety of workers, said Linde.
“Initially we didn’t talk about mental health, and while I think that now people are starting to talk about it, firstly we need to start breaking the stigma.”
This begins through starting conversations on the topic, with a focus on “letting people know that if they’re hurting that it’s okay to ask for help,” she said.
“People may be embarrassed to get help, but it’s really about just understanding the statistics and demonstrating that there are so many people affected by this, and that it is OK to talk about.”
Linde cited anxiety, depression and burnout as obstacles to psychological safety, but also noted that high levels of substance abuse and opioid dependence exist within the construction industry, especially in cases of injury recovery or management.
A number of industry resources have been created in recent years to address growing needs for psychological safety in construction workplaces.
Linde pointed towards the BCCSA’s online mental health toolkit, RE-MIND, which helps workers struggling with addiction and psychological wellness by familiarizing them with common mental health challenges and connecting them with resources local to their area.
Prioritizing mental health in the workplace benefits individuals who may be struggling, Linde said, but also creates an overall culture that’s more engaged, efficient and — most importantly — safe.
“When you have a mentally healthy workplace, you also have reduced absenteeism and employees that are more engaged, which then leads to improved productivity and a more robust health and safety culture with less incidents,” she said.
“It really does all tie together.”
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.