OC Transpo is moving to install protective barriers for its drivers across its bus fleet amid a surge in COVID-19 infections in operators and pressure from unions to push transit workers higher in the queue for vaccination.
The Ottawa transit agency announced Monday that it will start putting driver shields in place on more than 750 buses in its fleet this week, with the installations finishing by the end of August.
The barriers are made of a harder plastic than the temporary versions installed on buses last spring.
Fewer than 100 of OC Transpo’s oldest 40-foot buses will ride out the end of their service life with the temporary shields installed, but they are all scheduled for replacement in the next year.
Going forward, all OC Transpo buses will have the permanent barriers installed before entering service.
Installing the new equipment, approved at an estimated cost of $6 million in the 2021 municipal budget, is meant to protect drivers from physical abuse as well as help prevent transmission of viruses.
The installations come as OC Transpo faces a surge in new COVID-19 cases among its staff.
So far in April, more than a dozen operators have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with three confirmed cases reported in drivers last Thursday alone.
Across the organization, OC Transpo reports there have been more than 100 COVID-19 cases with 26 staff members recovering in self-isolation as of last Wednesday’s transit commission meeting.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279, which represents OC Transpo operators, has joined with the national union calling for transit workers to be prioritized in COVID-19 vaccination sequencing, given the risks they face transporting essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
The transit commission, too, wrote to Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches and her provincial counterpart last week to push for bus and train drivers to be given consideration when determining the queue for vaccinating people who can’t work from home.
Clint Crabtree, president of ATU Local 279, said in a statement to Global News on Monday that the barriers are a good step towards making operators “feel safe” on the job, but more needs to be done for transit workers during the third wave of the pandemic.
“Shields and barriers are not sufficient enough to protect transit employees from the COVID-19 virus. Vaccinations should be expedited immediately for all transit employees across the province of Ontario and Canada,” Crabtree said in an email.