Ottawa’s construction contractors not 100% vaccine compliant but municipal projects can continue under essential work rules

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Ottawa Construction News staff writer

Contractors working on City of Ottawa construction projects have experienced challenges in complying with the city’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy because some workers remain unvaccinated despite the requirements, says Bruce Kenny, acting manager of the city’s Design and Construction Branch.

Speaking at an online National Capital Heavy Construction Association (NCHCA) meeting on Feb. 22, Kenny said the city doesn’t know exactly how many workers remain unvaccinated. “We believe it is somewhat less than the city’s average.”

Kenny was one of four speakers at the event, which also covered excess soil guidelines, the impact of accessibility requirements on roads, curbs and sidewalk design requirements, community benefits, and an update from Ottawa Public Health about pandemic progress.

(Ottawa Public Health data indicates that, as of March 2, 94% of the city’s population aged 18 and above has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 91% have received two doses.)

Under City of Ottawa rules in place in early March (these may change as COVID-19 restrictions are lightened provincially this spring) contractors were required to attest that all workers on city projects are vaccinated.

But what happens if contractors cannot commit to this attestation because some employees remain unvaccinated?

“The city of Ottawa will continue to balance our need for vaccinated workers with our absolute requirement to essential services to our community,” Kenny said. “We will require full vaccination of contracting staff wherever possible, and to date (since the mandatory vaccination policy went into effect in November, 2021) we have not been able to achieve full vaccination of our contractors.”

This means, Kenny indicated, that since construction work is considered essential, if the contractor cannot achieve 100 per cent staff vaccination, that work could possibly continue – under the sort of enhanced public safety/health protocols that have been required since the start of the pandemic.

“If there is a further loosening of mandated measures provincially, the city does have a track record of following suit and that will result in added flexibility to continue with some of the measures that we’ve put in place to keep those projects rolling and to keep people working,” he said.

“If there is a tightening of measures and there is an increased emphasis on obtaining fully vaccinated work sites, then our sector continues to be at the risk of experiencing labour shortages.”

Kenny said he has been impressed with how the city and construction industry have worked together to mitigate COVID-19’s impacts.

He said he expects many of the enhanced health and safety protocols, including watching out for other pathogens and securing construction site access, will continue after the pandemic ends. “We continue to look at those lessons learned,” he said. And some of the improvements in occupational health and safety that have been started with COVID will be long lasting.”

Kenny also addressed challenging new regulations relating to excess soil – namely the provincial requirement that if more than 2,000 cu. m. of soil are moved, this must be registered and documented – with the soil properly categorized about its level of contamination. If it is contaminated, it must be treated or processed in a compliant manner.

Soil needs to be sample tested and tracked as it is moved – a process that would be a nightmare if it couldn’t be done through electronic reporting tools.

Kenny acknowledged the there are challenges in interpreting the regulations. “Regulations, by their nature, they’re not black and white,” he said. “They’re grey. There’s room for interpretation. And if you talk to one consultant versus another or a contract or someone in a different industry, there’s a real sort of inconsistent understanding of how this should be applied.”

“The previous philosophy was that soil was (considered to be) clean unless you want it to be dirty.  The regulation brings in the concept of soil being dirty unless it’s shown to be clean.”

He said the city will work with the industry to help manage these challenges, including co-operating with contractors if the new rules pose additional costs. This includes providing clear specifications so contractors can factor in its implementation costs and price bids accordingly.

In another presentation, accessibility consultant Marnie Peters outlined some of the significant variables involved in “Design for All” or “inclusive design” standards – namely making sure that sidewalks, bicycle paths and roadways, especially at intersections, are safe for individuals with sight or mobility challenges.  The concept is that the “public right of way” should be truly accessible – but many areas of the city’s infrastructure are far from safe as they are at present.

Solutions are possible, but they require thoughtful consideration of the environment and careful work and review of site conditions and accessibility measures at the design phase, she said.

Jennifer McCabe, a City of Ottawa procurement advisor, outlined some of the basics of community benefits requirements and opportunities.

“City Council has directed that we look into maximizing the value from the city’s contracts by looking not on just  what the contract delivers to the project, but what are the local economic and social impact of these contracts.”

The city is aiming for a 10 per cent spending allocation with with “social enterprises” or third -party service certified businesses, she said. The advantage to contractors is these services can help alleviate labor shortages.

“How can we take the work that we’re doing anyway, and create more value not just to the city and for the taxpayers’ money but in our community overall,” she asked.

            Brent Moloughney, the city’s deputy medical officer of health, told the online gathering that “we’re on a downward slope” with COVID-19 infections, but the city (and nation) aren’t out of the pandemic yet.

He provided national data showing the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations in reducing the risk of hospitalization and serious illness, or death.

While vaccination has proven less effective for the Omicron variant – it dropped “from about 85% to about 70%” the third booster dose “makes a difference and brings that protection back up to the 90 or 95% range against serious illness which is hospitalization or death,” he said.

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