Health & Safety
Stay safe, stay in business
By Carolyn Camilleri
Adapting to the realities of a COVID-19 world
By Carolyn Camilleri
Bill Kyte, co-owner with his son Thomas of Bill Kyte Well Drilling, is proud of how his province has managed the COVID-19 crisis.
“In New Brunswick, our premier and the COVID-19 team led by Dr. Jennifer Russell – that’s our chief medical officer – did a great job of leading us through this pandemic, and, for the most part, the people have bought into it,” he says. “We are quite pleased and proud of that so hopefully we will continue.”
Kyte has especially good reasons for remaining diligent: he and his wife are in the high-risk age group. The two workers Kyte and his son have on staff also have family in high-risk groups.
“We are doing everything we are supposed to,” Kyte says. “The social distancing is the big thing and, of course, when we are on the job site that is pretty hard to do. But we try to follow all the regulations and guidelines. We sanitize the vehicles every day and keep washing our hands.”
Kyte says business was quiet at the beginning, but it is quiet at that time of year anyway, with roads closed for spring breakup. Business has picked up since.
“We are fairly busy and it’s hard to put a handle on things, because I thought things would grind to a standstill with everybody’s financial situations, but so far, we are still getting calls, and we’ve been going fairly well,” he says, noting that with reduced open hours and lineups at places like garages, parts suppliers and banks, day-to-day errands take longer.
But they are getting the hang of it.
BUSINESS AS USUAL . . . SORT OF
Kim Friesen, co-owner of Friesen Drillers Ltd., which is based in Steinbach, Man., and also owns Andrews and Sons Drilling in Regina, says they’ve continued to operate throughout the crisis.
“There has been a slight decrease in demand, but it’s directly related to the shutdown order as prime contractors and engineers are not able to be on some job sites as required,” Friesen says.
Aardvark Drilling Inc., based out of Guelph, has also continued to operate throughout the pandemic.
“Some individual projects were not construed as essential, but the majority of our work continued,” says Gregory J. Zehr, Aardvark’s health and safety manager. “Some clients were slower to pay invoices, and we can only infer that this is due to hesitance to part with money while uncertain about their own economic outlook.”
Similarly, Matt Wilson, vice-president of J.B. Wilson and Son Drilling Ltd. in Springfield, Ont., says business volume has remained about the same.
“A higher percentage of calls from our residential customers seem to be more focused on an immediate issue, while our commercial, industrial, and farm customers seem to be about the same frequency and importance level,” Wilson says.
In British Columbia, Dave Mercer, general manager of the B.C. Ground Water Association, says, based on what he has heard, most members haven’t seen a huge drop in business.
“I think there was a lot of worry at the outset about people’s livelihoods, and the general feedback I have heard is that people have remained busy. I haven’t heard of anyone going out of business – it doesn’t mean that no one has, but I haven’t heard it,” he says.
“Our members are consultants, drillers, pump installers, and all of their work has been established as essential, and so then it is figuring out how that work can be done while meeting requirements of the ministry of health and the federal government,” Mercer says. “Some work, like drilling related to certain construction projects, isn’t deemed essential so that work has been delayed.”
But while work volume has remained more or less stable for everyone interviewed, much has changed since the outset of the crisis.
“People have been told to stay home, stay in your region, so driving off to a project across the province just isn’t acceptable. They have been passing that work on to more local operations, primarily in the case of pump installers,” Mercer says.
Though restrictions continue to lift across the country, the threat of virus hot spots and a second wave mean some change may be permanent.
ESTABLISHING NEW RULES
While getting safety supplies – PPE and cleaning materials – was difficult for some early in the crisis, all the businesses interviewed here have new safety measures in place.
“We have added more procedures out on the jobs for the safety and protection of our crews when out in the public,” Friesen says. “We have toolbox meetings in the mornings when there are any updates in the regulations to ensure all our employees are notified.”
Aardvark uses an app to complete hazard assessments and site inspections and to record incidents; the app also has a resources section for posting policies and procedures.
“We have developed procedures for operating during the pandemic, based on sanitization and disinfection of vehicles and workplaces, with specific attention to high-touch areas,” Zehr says, listing measures such as staying home when sick, using Health Canada’s Self-Assessment Tool, hand washing, coughing etiquette, social distancing and wearing additional PPE.
The app allows them to communicate to the workforce effectively from a distance, while tracking exactly who has reviewed the materials.
“With no possibility of a company-wide meeting, this has been heavily relied upon for communication,” Zehr says. “We also have a hard-copy tip sheet covering COVID-19 safe work practices for each job file.”
Numerous health and safety protocols have been implemented at J.B. Wilson and Son Drilling to keep staff and customers safe. Wilson lists examples: “We check every employee’s temperature each morning. Our field staff don’t enter the office to keep our office staff separate, and office and field staff use separate washroom facilities. More frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces. We have a questionnaire for customers (about their health status, travel history, etc.) before entering their property on jobs. We wear masks on service calls and while in close contact with customers, suppliers and others. Where appropriate, we ask customers to turn on the lights, open the doors and stay away from us while we work.”
But as tidy as it sounds, the new measures have an impact on day-to-day work.
“It does take longer to do the same amount of work with the new health and safety protocols included,” Wilson says.
They also add another layer of challenges to physical work.
“It is certainly difficult, especially with drilling, to maintain appropriate social distancing when pulling pipe out of the ground,” Mercer says. “Sometimes you need one guy with the wrench on the pipe and the other guy grabbing the pipe as it comes free, so they have really had to look at their procedures to do their best to maintain social distancing.”
KEEPING COMMUNICATION OPEN AND CORRECT
While the new protocols can be challenging, perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing what to pay attention to. Zehr says a main obstacle for them was “filtering out information that was not credible, akin to background noise.”
“It seems counterintuitive at first, but we have based our safety measures on very few resources, namely Health Canada and local public health units in the areas we operate,” Zehr says. “There is a general tendency towards taking in information from everywhere and anywhere during any period of uncertainty, but we feel that information quality wins out.”
Curating information and avoiding overwhelming people with information was key for BCGWA in communicating with membership.
“Everyone was getting so many COVID-19 emails every day – from their corner grocery store and on and on – so we didn’t want to be another pain in people’s inboxes,” Mercer says. “People were already at a higher level of anxiety and were getting overloaded.”
BCGWA dedicated a website page to COVID-19 information with up-to-date guidelines from federal and provincial health agencies and WorkSafe BC, as well as other appropriate sources.
“The British Columbia Construction Association has great daily updates, because they’re very specific to people who work in the field and work with heavy equipment and that really applies to our pump installers and drillers,” Mercer says. “The Association of Engineers and Geoscientists has recommendations for professionals, and they have very regular updates for people who are more desk- and less field-oriented.”
The Ontario Ground Water Association was also noted for staying on top of information and was a main source for Wilson.
“The OGWA sends us pertinent information and links to other resources, mostly from the government and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business,” Wilson says, adding that membership with the CFIB is free with paid membership in the OGWA.
Kyte found it challenging to determine industry-appropriate best practices and turned to his provincial health authority.
“Between the federal government doing their daily updates and the provincial, it keeps you pretty well informed,” he says.
Friesen, too, looks to the federal and provincial governments, as well as the World Health Organization and CFIB, for guidance. “Different provinces have different procedures, and we follow what the provincial guidelines request and make sure that the different provincial companies are abiding by those standards.”
Friesen says feedback from staff has been positive. “They feel comfortable on the job sites as we are making sure that we are providing them with all the right information and tools – hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes, soap and water, face masks, etc. – so that they can stay working and stay safe while doing so.”
She offers a tip for other businesses: “Make sure you always keep your employees informed of all and any changes that the provinces set out. The more you keep them informed, the more comfortable they feel to continue working.”
Zehr says the vast majority of their staff see the efforts made to keep them safe and, as a result, have a positive outlook.
“Our workers want to continue to work and make money but only under working conditions that allow them to remain safe,” he says. “Having low risk tolerance and high standards when it comes to safety is an attitude we have promoted and cultivated over the years. We strive to provide our workforce with the knowledge, resources and materials to do their work safely at all times. We have support in place for workers who need to talk to someone, but ultimately, if a staff member has reservations about working in the current environment, we respect that.”
Zehr points to the importance of using credible sources, planning ahead, trying to anticipate needs and listening to concerns.
“When concerns are raised, do something about it,” he says.“It’s retrospective advice to be sure, but we’ve successfully procured the materials needed to keep going and have been managing well.”
Staff at J.B. Wilson and Son Drilling understand the necessity and are working well with the new guidelines. “Several things we have implemented have been suggested by staff,” Wilson says.
And be sure to keep your customers informed. “It is important to let customers know we are open and taking public health recommendations seriously and ask for co-operation with our health and safety protocols,” Wilson says.
BCGWA sent out a helpful tool to their members: a flyer to give to customers who have water wells to reassure them that ground water is safe. The information is based on an NGWA report that said chances of contracting COVID-19 from ground water are minuscule. It also encourages customers to have their wells inspected and maintained to keep the well and the people healthy.
“There is a space at the bottom so the member can put their own name and contact information,” Mercer says. “So it’s an informative flyer but it can also be promotion so they can remind their customers that they are there as we start to open up again.”
At the time of writing, numbers of new COVID-19 cases in Canada have decreased considerably, but we are not out of the woods.
“I suspect that continuing with the health and safety protocols will get more difficult as the summer weather hits – wearing masks when it is hot, humid and sweaty – and when ‘COVID fatigue’ causes people to become less vigilant as time wears on,” Wilson says.
While we don’t know what’s next, sticking with new protocols seems well advised.
“We will get through this, and companies that adapt to the new normal more quickly will have a better chance of gaining more business in a post-COVID world,” Wilson says.
As Kyte says, we have to play the cards we are dealt with. “As long as we don’t get carried away with the relaxation of some of the rules, we will be able to withstand the second wave if it does arrive,” he says. “Then we will find out what the new normal really is.”
Carolyn Camilleri is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and content strategist. She has been writing for consumer and trade magazines, as well as businesses and organizations, for more than 15 years.