B.C. stakeholders meet with U.S. neighbours to discuss successes coping with COVID

Journal of Commerce | Peter Caulfield | October 26, 2020

Officials with several British Columbia construction associations met virtually recently with a Washington State senator and the CEO of a U.S.-Canada economic organization to discuss how the B.C. and Washington construction industries dealt with the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Canadians explained how B.C. kept its construction industry open and operating safely without a break, unlike its Washington counterpart, which was shut down March 26, 2020 and resumed with modifications a month later.

They described how WorkSafeBC and the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) worked together to produce clear guidelines that enabled construction work to continue in B.C. during the pandemic.

Such levels of co-operation and co-ordination during an emergency like COVID-19 are not remarkable in B.C., but they are more difficult to achieve in Washington, according to one of the American participants. 

Construction and COVID: BC’s Model for Collaboration and Continuity was put on by the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), a cross-border organization of states and provinces that addresses common economic and environmental matters.

Everybody in the province’s construction industry pulled together to do what was needed,

Dave Baspaly, Council of Construction Associations

The webinar’s B.C. participants included Mike McKenna, BCCSA executive director; Dave Baspaly, president and CEO, Council of Construction Associations (COCA); Chris Atchison, president of the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA); and Chris Back, director, OHS consultation and education services with WorkSafeBC.

Also taking part were the two co-chairs of the PNWER workforce development working group, Senator Lisa Wellman, Washington State Legislature, and Russ Kinghorn, director of engineers at Engineers and Geoscientists BC, as well as Matt Morrison, CEO of PNWER.

The session was moderated by Charles Kelly, president of Great Northern Management Consultants.

First to speak was BCCSA’s Mike McKenna.

“Our organization helped B.C. construction keep its workers safe in two ways,” said McKenna. “As a curator of information, we collected information on workplace safety from WorkSafeBC and large construction companies, updated it, packaged it and distributed it to the rest of the B.C. construction industry.”

When information didn’t already exist, on such topics as handwashing and mask-wearing, the BCCSA created it with the help of industry and WorkSafeBC and ensured it got out to the industry quickly.

COCA’s Baspaly described how B.C. construction’s approach to COVID-19 was different.

“Everybody in the province’s construction industry pulled together to do what was needed,” said Baspaly. “That has been our approach historically in times of crisis. Washington and other U.S. jurisdictions, in contrast, are divided and fractious.”

Construction was declared an essential service in B.C., unlike Washington – and Quebec and Ontario – where it was shut down for a time.

“Construction in B.C. was able to maintain an essential service by keeping everyone safe,” he said. “There were only a very few instances of COVID-19 infection on B.C. construction worksites.”

Atchison said his role in the webinar was to explain the structure of non-profit organizations in construction and how that structure enabled the industry’s collective success in the pandemic.

“The Washington industry and government representatives noted with envy that B.C. construction continued to operate safely during COVID-19,” Atchison said. “They wanted to learn from our best practices how to improve their own short-term outcomes and prepare better for the future, for the construction industry and for other industries as well.”

Kelly suggested the webinar to PNWER because the B.C. construction industry successfully responded to the pandemic.

“There was nothing magic about it,” he said. “B.C. has a history of co-operation and collaboration in a crisis; there’s no similar model in Washington.

“For example, the BCCSA and COCA boards have members from other associations as board members, but the Washington construction associations act separately from one another.”

Morrison said his organization began planning a safe regional economic recovery as soon as the pandemic hit in March.

“We discovered there are some big differences between B.C. and Washington construction associations and their relationships with one another and their respective provincial and state governments,” said Morrison. 

PNWER and its American members found out B.C. construction had been declared an essential service and the industry’s COVID-19 infection rates were very low, with no deaths. 

“We wanted to show our members how B.C. did it,” Morrison said. 

Wellman said she admires how the different groups in B.C. construction put aside their respective interests and agendas to support the industry as a whole.

Although she hopes Washington can learn from B.C.’s example, she doubts the B.C. model can be replicated exactly in the U.S. because of the different governance structures and political cultures in the two countries.

Wellman said, however, B.C.’s approach has her personal endorsement and she will be getting the word out in Washington.

To watch the archived webinar, go to https://vimeo.com/442884755