As protest groups use the COVID-19 pandemic to renew their fundraising and calls for pipeline projects and the Site C dam to be stopped, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has issued new guidance to employers managing industrial sites and camps during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Construction has been designated an essential service by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as of March 26, as part of a lengthy list of activities ordered to continue by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.
The BCCDC advises hand washing and cleaning supplies, and disposable gloves and masks (or tissues if masks not available) to be issued to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 who are isolated.
Henry has noted that it isn’t safe or practical to simply shut down large ongoing projects like Site C, which is preparing to divert the Peace River this summer in a critical phase of completing BC Hydro’s third dam in the region. The Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion are continuing with reduced work-forces as they prepare for the spring thaw that results in soft, wet conditions for heavy machine work.
We’re modifying our work activities on the @sitecproject near #FortStJohn in response to the increasing escalation of the #COVID19 pandemic. Here’s some more info: https://t.co/CkWfleq3N6 pic.twitter.com/t8n3uwDvo6
— BC Hydro (@bchydro) March 18, 2020
“Construction sites are not as high a risk an environment, as we know, because they’re mostly outdoors so there are ways of mitigating risk in those sites,” Henry said in her daily briefing March 25.
The BCCDC rules for prevention and control in work camps call for any employee showing symptoms to be separated from others and isolated, “unless they are within close driving distance of their home and are able to safely drive home without using shared transportation.”
It also advises employers with camps to check with the local medical health officer on whether to conduct testing of suspected cases in camps.
The essential service designation is a significant responsibility for the industry, says Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.
“Many construction companies have gone beyond those measures and put even more stringent safety protocols in place,” Gardner said in a statement March 31, referring to measures outlined by WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Construction Safety Alliance. “These measures are not optional – they are the rules of doing business in the new reality we face today.”
The rival B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council, representing traditional construction unions, has called for remote camps to reduce activities to essential and “critical-path work.” It has praised WorkSafeBC’s efforts to respond to worker complaints as construction around the province adapts to COVID-19 precautions.
“We’ve been heartened by contractors like Oceanview Mechanical in Victoria, where workers built, installed and plumbed in water for their own hand-washing stations at six residential condominium sites,” said Andrew Mercier, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades.
As of March 30, BC Hydro reports there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the Site C camp. The camp is currently housing 819 workers with four in isolation for 10 days after reporting any of the following symptoms: sneezing, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, cough, fever or difficulty breathing.
“BC Hydro is being very cautious with our application of the guidelines and asking people to self-isolate with any slight symptom,” says the daily update on the Site C project website.
In mid-March, contractors working at Site C were directed to use the province’s online self-assessment tool to examine their health conditions. That advice is also part of the latest BCCDC directive.
On March 16, LNG Canada said it is reducing its Kitimat workforce by half, where construction is underway for a liquefied natural gas export facility connected to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Trans Mountain has suspended all non-essential business travel and is incorporating the latest BCCDC and WorkSafeBC protocols.
“We are committed to maintaining the uninterrupted operation of the Trans Mountain pipeline and continuing construction of the expansion project while taking a number of steps to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus,” the federally-owned company said March 19.