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Mask up and conquer


February 2, 2021
By James Wong

Topics

Let’s talk COVID 19 protective masks.

I want to start this article by thanking all the frontline workers for all their heroic acts during this pandemic and express that this commentary does not in any way neglect to recognize their contribution and their struggles with protective mask inventory.

One of the most frustrating hurdles of the pandemic – not to mention the layoffs, increasing depletion of morale, the huge loss in revenues and the overall implementation of COVID 19 protocols – has been the challenge of getting full buy-in and co-operation for proper COVID 19 protective mask wearing. It has been an uphill battle from the day of the announcement that the pandemic was here
in Canada.

I recall speaking in one of our huddles suggesting we start wearing masks. It was a tricky situation because the health providers were just starting to realize the huge shortage of medical masks at the time and an even worse shortage of N95 masks. The other very real setback was the overall disbelief of the team regarding the seriousness of the pandemic and the preventive effectiveness of wearing masks. 

What followed were the layoffs and a huge loss in revenue. We lost 80 percent of our team and 80 percent of our revenue. By the time I was brought back from layoff, morale was at an all-time low. Compliance with safety protocols was impossible to back-track or track because of the lack of safety form submissions brought on by fewer and smaller jobs and the hesitancy to go into the office.

On top of that, we all know the construction job site environment is a dirty place to work, often without running water, washrooms and often without close management. Constantly washing or sanitizing hands has not been the usual way of working on job sites. Teams want to go to work and get the job done, not fiddle around with non-N95 masks to ensure they fit and cover their mouths and noses. And although N95 masks are more stable on the face, no one wants to wear an N95 mask for eight hours or longer every working day unless it’s absolutely called for. When worn correctly the discomfort is only exacerbated the longer you wear them.

The six-feet-apart rule was /is counter to the reality that there are many jobsite working conditions that have guys working in extremely close physical proximity to one another. Try lifting a very heavy small box without being within six feet of each other. Try heaving on a metal bar with someone to disengage a stubborn obstacle without being within six feet of one another. It’s not practical and it simply can’t be done.

Work gloves were being used as COVID 19 protection and never taken off during a shift, which was contaminating the protective masks and everything else every time the gloves touched their clothes, body and masks. It was not unusual to have guys wearing masks below their noses and wearing the same mask every day until it disintegrated to the point of not staying on their faces at all. Office culture was also difficult to change. It took a long time to see the change for everyone wearing masks all the time. 

There was no one solution. Protocols were announced and distributed, nonetheless it was the slow and purposeful nudging, encouraging and monitoring, and even today there are challenges to helping those who aren’t quite getting it, to understand that COVID 19 protective mask wearing is part of the PPE requirements in today’s climate of the pandemic. Not only do they protect the wearer, wearing a COVID 19 protective mask protects the team, friends and families of everyone and is a very real part of our COVID 19 protocol requirement. 

As we enter 2021 and leave the last dismal year behind, let’s all be diligent about our collective responsibility to protect each other, ourselves and our community. After all it’s not rocket science…or is it?

Be safe. Be well. 


James Wong is an OHS chief for the construction industry.