By Marc Huminilowycz and Ted McIntyre
Numbers are improving, but construction remains a hazardous profession
As the opening line from the Government of Ontario’s Health and Safety webpage reads, “All workers have the right to return home each day safe and sound.”
But the reality is that some don’t. Demolition, excavation, heavy equip-ment, roofing, framing, plumbing and electrical, multiple trades…. With so much going on during construction, anything can happen, and it sometimes does. The incidents at projects in London and Toronto in December 2020 provided a sad reminder.
“These tragic accidents just remind us that we need to continue to make safety on sites a priority every day, to be vigilant, and that we can never take things for granted,” says OHBA President Bob Schickedanz. “We want everyone to go home safe every night. It’s tragic, and we extend our condolences to the families and everyone involved.”
Despite an increased focus over the years on workplace safety standards and training, construction has remained in the top spot among all industry sectors in Ontario for workplace fatalities since 2009, according to WSIB data.
To be fair, in 2019, 55 people lost their lives because of a workplace traumatic fatality, down from 72 in 2018.Construction accounted for 32% of those deaths (23), followed by transportation, manufacturing and services.
“While I would love to say that the incidence of construction injuries and fatalities in Ontario is getting better, fatalities have dropped only slightly over the long term and we haven’t really made a dent in injuries,” says Bruce Bolduc, owner/consultant with Construction Workplace Safety Training Ltd. in Barrie.
As its name implies, Bolduc’s company provides training, consulting, policies and procedures, as well as accident investigations for companies. “Sadly, we do too many of the latter,” he says.
Bolduc identifies several key factors why injuries and fatalities have not abated more substantially over the years, despite better training, workplace safety standards, protection and equipment.
“Getting injured and getting back to work is something of a badge of honour for many construction workers,” he notes. “The attitude is, ‘I’m tough enough. Construction is not for the weak of heart.’”
Another factor is complacency and shortcuts, Bolduc adds. “Workers say things like, ‘I’m only going out there for a few seconds’ or ‘I’ll do just one last thing.’”
Bolduc identifies industry deadlines as another factor. “Let’s face it, the construction industry has and always will be deadline-driven,” he says. “Contractors bid on jobs. When they get them, they’re already two weeks behind schedule and short of trades. I’ve dealt with many projects where tradespeople are brought in from afar or work for cash. And when it comes to workplace safety, the rules seem to change north of Highway 7.”
Then there is the age factor. “Older skilled tradespeople are retiring and there are just not enough new trained people to take their place,” Bolduc observes. “For example, the average age of bricklayers is in the 60s. They want to retire, but nobody wants to do their job.”
And while many of these same individuals would stretch before a slo-pitch or recreational hockey game, the same attention is not applied on the jobsite.
“In Japan, construction employees do warm-up exercises before getting to work to prevent injuries, but that just wouldn’t fly here,” says Bolduc. “But even with all the technology we have and the focus on ergonomics, there are ways to make things better. It just takes a willingness to change.”
The provincial government continues to mine their data in the attempt to curb incidents of injuries and illness.
“Every year, the ministry’s health and safety annual report allows us to review what we’ve achieved, and to look towards the future of the health and safety system,” observes Ron Kelusky, Chief Prevention Officer with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. “In 2013, (we) launched Healthy and Safe Ontario Workplaces — A Strategy for Transforming Occupational Health and Safety, which provided a road map for the occupational health and safety system. In 2019, the ministry’s Prevention Office consulted widely with Ontarians on the next five-year strategy.
“As we focus on the future, our ministry is committed to ensuring our initiatives are data-driven and measurable,” Kelusky adds. “For example, we want to use data to understand the events and circumstances around workplace incidents to reduce injuries or fatalities. We also want to measure the outcomes of our initiatives to improve them. And we need to effectively translate this data for those who would most benefit from the information. We are working with our partners and Ontarians in various sectors to determine the highest priority risks.”
There has been little doubt as to the priority over the past nine months. According to the CBC, as of late November, more than 26,000 WSIB claims had been filed by Canadians (7,752 in Ontario) who purport to have contracted COVID-19 at work.
In that regard, the new Bill 218, Supporting Ontario’s Recovery Act, enacted on Nov. 20, was welcome news for business owners. Retroactive to March 17, it is designed to protect employers from liability if they have made “good faith” efforts to prevent exposure to the virus.
But it’s hard to protect against the mental strain brought on by the pandemic. According to Morneau Shepell, a leading provider of total well-being, mental health and digital mental health services, through November, Canadian workers had registered eight consecutive months of significantly lower mental health than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The level of mental health in November (indicated) that the working population is currently as distressed as the most distressed 1% of working Canadians were prior to 2020,” the report observed, “and the psychological health risk score was at its lowest level since the inception of the Index.”
Construction was in sixth spot of 22 occupations ranked in the Index, tied with educational services and just behind Health Care & Social Assistance. Those in management positions of companies ranked first overall.
Kelusky says that in the construction industry, work-related stress/depression has overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as the most reported workplace health issue. But he echoes Bolduc’s sentiments that the ‘tough guy’ persona of the industry dissuades many from reporting.
“We want to ensure that persons working in construction have access to resources that are available—both anonymous and other.
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