BILL DETRIGHT HAD NO DOUBT. He walked off the job. Hao Di stayed. Juilia B can’t decide. They all work construction. They are among the thousands of workers on construction sites all across Canada left on their own to decide: Will going to work increase my risk of getting the Corona virus?
The answer might seem obvious. After all, a construction site does not offer what is essential to protect ourselves from the virus: there is no place to regularly wash your hands and you are in constant contact with 50 or more people. And yet no province has imposed a shut down on all construction sites.
The construction trades unions in Quebec have asked for such a total shutdown. Over 12,000 people have signed a petition calling for a nation-wide shutdown of all large construction sites. Workers on worksites in Victoria and Edmonton have walked off the job.
But, as of March 21 there was no official shutdown of construction sites. Whether or not to go into work is still a choice left up to each worker to make on her or his own.
The right to refuse unsafe work
Every worker in Canada has the legal right to refuse unsafe work. Bill Detright exercised that right when he walked off his job site after he found out he was working with a man who had recently travelled and was supposed to be in quarantine.
Bill told CLI: “The best way I can describe the situation on our site would be to say its uncontrolled. We have hundreds of workers ... working in close proximity to each other for at least 8 hours per day.
“It is quickly becoming chaos and hysteria because of so many unknowns.”
“I felt that my safety was being compromised by the people who are entrusted to make sure I am in a safe work environment. ... That isn’t a place I want to be working.”
Working to stay safe
Hao Di is a young unionized worker who feels he is “well-educated about the virus and a good communicator.” He has taken on the role of special covid- safety rep on his site, with the full support of his foreman.
“We’ve decided to restrict access to our site by locking down all entry points save one. Deliveries will also be locked out of the site and escorted by a worker once on site.
“At the start of every shift, each worker will need to be interviewed on how they’re feeling, whether they’ve been in contact with someone ill or have been out of the country.
“All workers will now be required to thoroughly wash their hands before starting work. We have installed additional sinks to handwash with soap at the gate and a wristband system for who has been screened. Another team is also disinfecting all doors and lifts (buttons etc.).”
Should I stay, or should I go?
Julia B is a certified electrician. She knows her rights. She knows she has the option to stay home. She says “that was nice to hear, but who will be the first one to take it?”
Julia says that if she stays at work “I get to receive a paycheque and that feels privileged” particularly when so many others are getting laid off.
On the other hand, going to work means risking “the domino effects” of exposure that comes with “working with more than 50 people sharing one elevator and not knowing how to test people who may not be symptomatic.”
“I’m also feeling conflicted about working while others are self-isolating,” says Julia. “At worst, I live with this telescopic backwards view, trying to keep track of everything I do, everywhere I go, everyone I am in contact with for the past ten days, two weeks, just in case I develop symptoms.
"I worry about spending time with my father, who is 65. I worry about being contagious and not symptomatic.”
Hao Di knows going to work is taking a risk. But the reality of having to pay the rent makes it a risk he is ready to take. It’s a “tough tension” he says. “Honestly, I try not to think about it.”
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