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U of T Survey: Planning for future pandemics

Collecting best practices on how to better manage and deal with future pandemics in construction


February 12, 2021
By Jay Koblun

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Photo: Jay Koblun

COVID-19 is not the first, nor will it be the last pandemic the world will see. The question being asked by the Canadian government now is, what steps can the construction industry take to address future pandemics?

A research team from the University of Toronto was approved for funding in 2020 to conduct a survey for the Canadian construction industry seeking to address future pandemics in construction.

The survey was developed by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto with full engagement and support from OSPE (Ontario Society of Professional Engineers), RESCON (Residential Construction Council of Ontario), and RCCAO (Residential Construction Council of Ontario).

Professor Tamer El-Diraby at U of T is the lead researcher on the project.

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Professor Tamer El-Diraby at U of T. Submitted photo.

“The government noted two things when the pandemic hit. COVID-19 will not be the world’s last pandemic, it’s actually the third in about 15 years, and second, the government is interested in research that would go into increasing resiliency against COVID. OSPE, RESCON, and RCCAO applied together to create a survey that would help the construction industry be better prepared for whichever global pandemic comes next.”

Initial thoughts for the survey began in April of last year and the organizations involved received funding in June.

“The plan is not to tell the industry what to do, we want to let the industry tell us what they learned in the last year,” said El-Diraby. “First, there is no playbook for a pandemic that will work for everyone and every company. Second, we also don’t want this to just be an academic exercise that. And finally, we want this to be very informative work.”

El-Diraby said he and his team are trying to encourage the industry to generate those lessons and to use those lessons to benchmark them against other industries and best practices, especially manufacturing.

“We want to see if we can transfer these findings from just being a research paper or survey into a policy the government can use. How many times has the country experienced a crisis and we say we need to learn something from it but nothing happened?”

Benefits of a survey

El-Diraby said a survey is ideal because the team is not looking to tell the industry what to do but to listen to them.

“This is an unprecedented field with research that cannot be learned in a lab. These are people who faced the challenges of COVID-19 and have a lot to say. We want to capture this for the future use of other people and help the industry establish a plan.”

The survey was opened in November of last year and will be made available until June 2021.

The researcher said the survey is not asking about health and safety, PPE, masking concerns or social distancing.

“We are aware that masking and social distancing is ultra-important, and the most assured way to save lives during the pandemic. By not including this in the survey we are not diminishing its importance. What we are saying is it is the local health authorities who have the resources, means, knowledge, and authority to implement those specific guides. We are complimenting those policies with a guide with what has not yet been addressed.

“Having the proper PPE is important but making sure construction does not stop is another.”

Who should participate

El-Diraby said he is looking for everyone involved in the industry to participate but particularly those on executive teams. Managers who play a role in the survival of the industry.

“We are looking for those who have knowledge in the resiliency of the industry who can answer the questions ‘How can we ensure projects continue?’, ‘How can we control costs?’, and ‘How can we make sure people working in the industry are not going to lose their jobs?’

“We want to create a system where owners, contractors, and consultant work together to save a project and make changes to ensure projects stay within cost and under expected timelines.”

Industry support

OSPE, RESCON, and RCCAO help with three things: help the researchers reach out to industry experts and get them to participate in the survey, give valuable background information on available resources and practices already in place, and help guide the team into evaluation the results of the survey and the means to make it implementable.

“The main concerned right now is we need more participation,” said El-Diraby. “We are not simply looking for positive feedback, we want to listen to everyone. Hopefully, word gets around and others are invited to participate. Everybody’s experience is valuable and can help someone or someone’s company in the future.”

A link to the survey can be found at research.net/r/constructioninpandemics and the research website at, constructioninpandemics.ca/our-guides.