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Nova Scotia’s construction industry grapples with invisible threat of COVID-19

Nova Scotia construction industry grapples with invisible threat of COVID-19
Nova Scotia’s construction industry has been deemed an essential service, meaning workers must find creative ways to safeguard against COVID-19 on their sites. But as Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, in an environment that relies heavily on teamwork, that’s easier said than done.

With the number of COVID-19 cases increasing daily in Nova Scotia, the province’s construction industry is adapting its practices to prevent the spread of the disease on job sites.

Workers and employers have been asked to wash their hands frequently, disinfect equipment and high-touch surfaces, avoid carpooling and lunch away from the group.

But there’s one major hurdle they haven’t quite tackled: how to keep a safe distance during tasks that require more than one person, like lifting a heavy beam.

READ MORE: St. Patrick’s Day party could be linked to new Nova Scotia COVID-19 case

“It’s definitely an issue that we’re all having to deal with, because sites aren’t just one trade, it could be five trades,” said Heather Cruickshanks, a board member for Merit Nova Scotia.

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“It is becoming challenging and to be honest I’m not sure every site is doing as good of a job as it could, and that’s concerning to me. It’s concerning to all my members.”

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Merit Nova Scotia represents open shop contractors, who don’t belong to a union. Cruickshanks said some of these workers are requesting layoffs over concerns for their health and their families.

Heather Cruickshanks says the non-unionized, ‘open shop’ workers are expected to follow safety rules, just like everyone else.
Heather Cruickshanks says the non-unionized, ‘open shop’ workers are expected to follow safety rules, just like everyone else. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

READ MORE: Alberta construction sites allowed to continue with precautions during COVID-19 pandemic

Nova Scotia construction workers are no strangers to health and safety risks. Every day, they mitigate trip and fall hazards, operate dangerous equipment and scale the rooftops of condo developments.

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Invisible to the eye, however, the novel coronavirus is an unprecedented threat to the industry.

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In Ontario and Quebec, governments have hit the pause button on some construction sites, both to curb the spread of infection and to give the industry time to develop a streamlined approach to safety.

N.S. issues warnings, creates new safety initiative after Global News construction investigation
N.S. issues warnings, creates new safety initiative after Global News construction investigation

Cruickshanks said she’d like to see the Nova Scotia government follow suit.

“I feel that a two-week pause would allow the general contractors, project managers and developers to get proper protocols in place, know what their responsibilities are and take the anxiety level out of employees right now, because I can tell you, it’s running at an all-time high,” she said.

READ MORE: Ontario construction groups plead with government to shut them down

Construction has been deemed an “essential service” by the Nova Scotia government, exempting it from rules that limit gatherings to five people. But Stephen McNeil has ordered all construction employers to ensure soap and water, or hand sanitizer is available on site.

Brad Smith, executive director for the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades, said his members are following provincial advice closely, and will wait for government direction rather than endorse a pause on construction.

“(Quebec and Ontario’s) strategy is appropriate to what they believe their strategy is appropriate for,” he told Global News. “I think in Nova Scotia, we’re following what the government is advising us and we’re just doing our very best to implement those and get best practices around that.”

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Nova Scotia biologists working around the clock to test COVID-19
Nova Scotia biologists working around the clock to test COVID-19

Smith said COVID-19 is a learning curve and his members have been giving strict pandemic marching orders. But like the open shop, they’re still working out the kinks of social distancing.

In the days to come, he added, his members may be asked to wear face masks when working side-by-side on unavoidable tasks.

“Right now, the focus is on getting the information out. This is about mitigating risk, like we mitigate any risk on a construction site,” he said.

“It’s about educating, finding the best practice, and making sure we’re getting the behaviour on the sites implementing the protocols as required.”

Any construction workers with questions on concerns about health and safety on their particular site are being asked to call the Department of Labour’s occupational health and safety hotline at 1-800-952-2687.