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David Eby's Porta-Potty Agenda

The ‘daily indignity’ of crappy toilets will end for construction sites with more than 25 workers.

Zak Vescera 24 Oct 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

There are portable toilets that still haunt Peter White.

There was the one at the Simon Fraser University Woodward's building project, where human waste had begun to overflow and spread from the porta-potty.

Then there was the one at the Broadway subway project in Vancouver, which White said had to be sealed off because of the pungent stench.

“There were times we would have to red tape them off because they’d just knock you out from the smell,” said White, an ironworker.

Like many tradespeople, White has used thousands of porta-potties in his lifetime. They’re ubiquitous on construction projects of every size. And for most workers, there’s at least one they can’t forget.

But soon, porta-potties on large construction sites will be flushed away.

Premier David Eby said this month his government will require employers to provide flush toilets at construction sites with 25 employees or more.

Eby made the surprise announcement at the convention of the BC Building Trades, an umbrella group of trade unions that has been calling for those changes since 2021.

Brynn Bourke, the organization’s executive director, said porta-potties are a “daily indignity” for construction workers. They’ve stuck around because employers didn’t want to pay for better, more expensive alternatives, she said.

Her organization had just launched a new publicity drive to push the B.C. government to adopt new standards. At first, there was no commitment from the province.

Then, to Bourke’s surprise, Eby announced onstage he would “bring in a legal requirement” for flush toilets.

Labour Minister Harry Bains said in a later interview with The Tyee that he wants it to happen fast. “I am looking for a pathway of, how do I get there as quickly as possible?” Bains said.

Plenty of stinky questions remain.

Construction companies are worried the new requirements could increase costs for projects already underway. In Quebec, which passed a similar law in 2015, a union warns plenty of companies have tried to skirt the rules. And while nicer portable toilet options exist, a Vancouver business owner says there is not nearly enough stock to satisfy the demand a new law would create.

All of it is part of a decades-long war from workers demanding better bathrooms.

“It’s clear that industry is not going to do this on its own,” Bourke said.

The right to wipe

The B.C. labour movement’s fight for decent toilets goes back more than a century.

In 1908, the province’s Factories Act required those workplaces to have “sufficient closets... earth or water closets, and urinals, for the employees of such factory.”

It further stipulated that “such closets and urinals shall at all times be kept clean and well ventilated, and separate sets thereof shall be provided for the use of the male and female employees, and shall have respectively separate approaches.” And it said such workplaces should be “free from effluvia” — that is, nasty smells or spills.

More than 110 years later, some workers in B.C. still don’t have that, especially in transportation and construction.

In theory, B.C. laws guarantee workers the right to a plumbed toilet. But they also contain a provision that employers can use portable toilets “where access to or installation of plumbed facilities is not practical.”

Bourke said that word — “practical” — is the justification construction companies have used to offer portable washrooms instead.

“It’s the loophole the whole industry walks through,” Bourke said.

Porta-potties are not the only mobile toilet option. The TV and film industry, for example, often uses large, wheeled trailers with flush toilets and running water.

But Bourke said porta-potties have an advantage. They’re cheap. Construction is expensive and competitive, and companies often win bids based on trimming costs.

White, who has worked in the trades for more than 13 years, says the toilets provided are overwhelmingly porta-potties.

And not all are created equal. Some are regularly cleaned; others downright filthy. Few are lit or insulated. In the summer, the heat makes the smell unbearable. In winter, the toilets are sometimes the only place a worker can change in private.

“There’s many porta-potties that haunt me,” said Crystal Tirado, a painter.

Tirado said people lucky enough to be near a plumbed toilet on the job don’t understand how unhygienic the portables can be.

“The summertime is just the worst time,” Tirado said. “There are flies sometimes. They’re not remembered to be cleaned. The hand sanitizer will run out.”

Once, on a demolition site, Tirado noticed something shifting at the bottom of the hole. It was mice, scrambling amid the human waste.

“I will normally avoid using the bathroom before a break just because I can’t stomach going into a filthy porta-potty and then going and having my lunch right away,” Tirado said.

Porta-potties aren’t just unpleasant. Bourke has heard stories of workers developing health problems from filthy toilets. If one is especially bad, White said, workers might elect to leave the job site to find a different toilet, which costs time.

Conditions improved briefly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, White said, when there was fresh emphasis on handwashing and sanitation. But it didn’t stick.

“It makes you feel kind of dehumanized,” White said.

No one likes the plastic portables. But they’re especially bad for women in the trades, and anyone else who needs to sit down to do their business.

Unions and employers alike want more women and gender-diverse people in the business in order to address labour shortages. But as of last year, the BC Construction Association found, just 4.5 per cent of B.C. tradespeople are women.

In 2017, a report sponsored by the provincial and federal governments sought to examine why that figure is so low.

Washrooms came up a lot. “Health concerns revolved mostly around bathroom facilities not being within a reasonable distance or being unhygienic,” the report said.

Karen Dearlove, executive director of the BC Centre for Women in the Trades, said toilets “are an issue for every tradeswoman I’ve ever spoken to.”

Sometimes there’s no dedicated washroom or changing area. Other times toilets are marked with sexist graffiti. Often there are no bins for sanitary products like tampons. In some cases there’s not even toilet paper. Tirado said the same problems affect many queer and non-binary people, too.

“It’s not a women’s issue. It’s women who have made it an issue and spoken up about it. But it’s really an issue of general safety and general hygiene,” Dearlove said.

Time to flush

Until last week, B.C.’s government had made no commitments in response to the BC Building Trades’ two-year-old campaign.

A ministry official said in an email before the changes were announced that government was concerned regulations on construction might also put onuses on other industries that rely on porta-potties, such as forestry and transportation.

But now, the government says it wants to move full speed ahead.

Bains, B.C.’s labour minister, said he has directed WorkSafeBC to explore regulatory changes guaranteeing workers on large construction sites access to a flush toilet. Barring that, he said, legislation is on the table.

“Flush toilets are a necessity. It’s not a luxury,” Bains said.

But getting rid of porta-potties won’t be easy.

In 2015, Quebec passed new regulations requiring job sites with more than 25 workers to provide heated, plumbed toilets.

That came after a 12-year lobbying effort by the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, the province’s largest trade union.

Simon Lévesque, head of health and safety at that union’s construction wing, said those toilets “are a question of dignity” for workers.

But eight years later, the union still regularly goes before tribunals to complain about toilets that aren’t properly heated, ventilated or lit as the regulations require.

In some cases, Lévesque said, employers modified existing porta-potties so that they would be “barely legal.” In others, they had to learn how to properly maintain and clean the new toilets.

And at first, there was a much simpler problem: Quebec rental companies just didn’t have enough decent toilets. This is a problem B.C. shares.

“From a hygiene perspective, there’s no question. This should be absolutely mandatory. I completely agree,” said Ian Walker. “But the logistics of it are often overlooked.”

Walker is co-owner of Full Moon Rentals, which he described as a mid-sized portable washroom rental company based in Vancouver. Most of his clients are film companies that already use the more expensive flush toilets.

Since Eby’s announcement, Walker said, his phone has been “ringing off the hook” with calls from construction firms across B.C. He said he and similar companies in B.C. don’t have the inventory to meet demand.

“Straight up, there’s no way,” Walker said.

There’s also the issue of cost. Walker asked to not disclose his prices — the toilet rental industry is cutthroat, he said, with companies sometimes winning bids on thin margins of just a few dollars. But, he said, in general a two-station washroom trailer would probably cost about five times what an equivalent number of portables does, including servicing costs.

There’s also the possibility of damage and vandalism, he said. In the past, users have set his porta-potties on fire. They’ve ripped soap dispensers off the walls of trailers. “We had a guy kick a toilet off of the hole. This was in a flushing toilet with heat. That repair costs thousands of dollars,” Walker said.

Those prices have industry nervous. Chris Atchison, president of the BC Construction Association, said his industry group supports “the new era of flush toilets,” even though it will be more expensive.

Atchison said government regulation is needed so all contractors face the same cost burden and can’t undercut each other by providing lousier toilets.

“As this becomes more of a regulation, a law, this needs to be built into the procurement documents. We need to make sure contractors are budgeting for this and that these costs aren’t being borne by the contractor,” he said.

In Quebec, Lévesque said business’s concerns about price ended up being overblown.

“The costs have increased since 2015, but for economic reasons — construction costs, the labour market,” Lévesque said. “Construction companies have not assumed these [toilet] costs. It’s the clients who are paying.”

But Atchison said his concerns are mostly around existing building projects where contractors have budgeted around porta-potty prices. He wants a guarantee from government that the regulation won’t affect construction projects that have already begun. Barring that, he wants government to protect contractors from any consequences they will otherwise face from ramping up their toilet budget.

“If it’s going to affect existing projects, we need a commitment that’s going to change the contracts that currently exist,” Atchison said.

But, in the long run, Atchison — and everyone — agrees it's time for porta-potties to go.

“The whole face of construction is going to look different in the coming months and years,” Bourke said. “We’re never going to go backwards.”  [Tyee]

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