Whether it’s factories, food processing plants or construction sites, the latest numbers show heavily populated, essential workplaces are hotspots for COVID-19 in Ontario.
Driven largely by such industrial jobs, workplaces have surged to become the most common setting for outbreaks in Ontario and have even surpassed care settings — a category that includes long-term care homes.
As of Friday morning workplaces made up 227 — just under 30 per cent — of Ontario’s 773 active outbreaks.
Dr. Cameron Mustard of the Institute for Work and Health said just as inattentiveness to one’s work can be dangerous in these industries, so to can a lack of focus on health protocols.
“The degree to which the workplace is providing personal protective equipment, is regularly wiping down equipment, is supporting the idea that we just don’t want people close together for periods of time that raise the risk of transmission. Those workplaces that are doing that will succeed in protecting the health of workers,” he told Global News.
“It’s where we have workplaces that aren’t paying attention that the risk is greatest.”
Seeing the impact on such workplaces in his city, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown has been asking for help well before the recent lockdown that was implemented in Toronto and Peel Region.
“This new grey zone restriction doesn’t apply to this setting because they’re all considered essential workers,” said Brown.
“We really need to do something different.”
While small buisnesses have been forced to scale back or stop operations altogether and most office spaces have moved to a work-from-home approach, factories and construction crews don’t have those options. If they stop their work, vital infrastructure and supply will ground to a halt.
Also, many of the workers don’t get paid if they don’t go to work because not all companies provide sick days.
The fear is that that leads some to go to work with mild symptoms that could be a common cold or could be COVID-19. That’s why Brown and other officials said provincial and federal governments need to step in to guarantee up to two weeks of sick benefits for workers in these fields.
“We need the government to come through with leadership to say, ‘We’re going to protect our most vulnerable essential workers,'” said Brown.
“The notion we have people going into work with a sniffle and COVID-19 spreading, innocently, because someone can’t afford to miss a paycheque is wrong!”
One thing that would seem to help both employees and employers is quicker test results. Premier Doug Ford has called rapid antigen tests “a game-changer.” However, the rollout of the tests has been criticized as being slow and most individual businesses don’t have the tests on hand.
“Some people fuss it’s not as accurate, I don’t fuss about that,” said Mustard.
“If a workspace is experiencing a concern that they might have a number of people in the workplace who are positive (for COVID-19), we can answer that question in half an hour.”
Despite the rise in workplace outbreaks, provincial officials said they have no plans at this time to stop or limit operations in these sectors.