Builders Code hopes to combat harassment, bullying in construction

B.C. program looks to improve industry culture, attract more tradeswomen

Builders Code hopes to combat harassment, bullying in construction
The Builders Code is a new program in British Columbia that defines an “acceptable worksite” and provides employers with tools, training and resources to improve and promote safe and productive worksite behaviour. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

If there’s one thing the construction industry understands, it’s building to code. So when it came to issues around harassment and bullying in the workplace — and a disappointing participation rate for women — the industry thought it made sense to introduce another code.

The Builders Code is a new program in British Columbia that defines an “acceptable worksite” and provides employers with tools, training and resources to improve and promote safe and productive worksite behaviour.

The code widens the definition of safety beyond physical hazards to include stress or distraction caused by discrimination, bullying, hazing or harassment. A Builders Code worksite “will seek to be free from behaviour that threatens the stability of work conditions including job performance, health, well-being, safety, productivity and the efficiency of workers,” according to the British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA), which is leading the initiative in collaboration with the province and industry partners.

Builders across the country build to code all the time, said Chris Atchison, president of the BCCA in Victoria.

“So what we were trying to do is to make sure that we could build an acceptable workplace strategy that spoke to employers in an effort to bring about the culture change that was necessary to increase not just the attraction, but the retention and success of tradeswomen in construction.”

It’s almost like safety 2.0, he said.

“The hazing, bullying and harassment of any worker on your jobsite represents a safety issue and a concern that needs to be addressed. So anytime somebody is harassed or bullied or treated in a way that makes them uncomfortable, you are increasing risk by virtue of the stresses that come to the person who’s been directly affected; or indirectly, other people on the crew who might be distracted or aggrieved by what’s going on. And that causes greater distraction and propensity for workplace accidents.”

The new code also addresses the issue of productivity, said Atchison.

“The more time that people spend remedying or attending to issues of bullying and harassment and hazing, it’s not only a safety issue, but it’s a productivity issue. So when we start speaking to employers in terms of safety, in terms of acceptable workplace strategies, that will increase productivity. And now we are getting them to do the right thing in a way that they can comprehend.”

Everyone is trying to figure out how to actually make change happen in a way that is not perceived as superficial or lip service, said Tina Strehlke, CEO of Minerva Foundation of B.C. in Vancouver — one of the industry partners.

“The B.C. construction sector is so innovative, and bringing it back to safety (makes sense) because it’s something that is so embedded in the industry; it is something that’s so critical to a successful organization.”

The construction industry knows the repercussions of not building to code, so to talk in the context of personal safety and physical safety on a construction site makes everybody acutely aware of building code and the risk to safety and productivity, said Tracey MacKinnon, workforce development manager at LNG Canada in Calgary — another industry partner.

“We’ve never had a code related to a respectful workplace, putting a minimal standard associated with that. And so by calling it a Builders Code, it resonates with the construction industry that there’s nothing acceptable except this minimum standard of a code, which is defining an acceptable worksite,” she said.

“It’s not just the direct recipients but because all the construction industry members really work in crews, they observe this and they too relate to the stress, and once you have people working in a stressful environment, then you start to compromise or potentially compromise people, safety and productivity. So, it truly is a business driver to adopt the Builders Code.”

Looking to boost retention

The province’s construction industry is already facing a skills shortage of 7,900 workers, with tradeswomen comprising only 4.7 per cent of the skilled workforce (8,474 out of 180,300 credentialed tradespeople).

“A workforce shortage is taking its toll on industry in terms of their ability to compete and bid on projects. And in British Columbia, there is a booming construction industry at this point in time. And worker shortage was becoming acute,” said Atchison.

The Builders Code includes the goal of “10x10” in looking to have B.C.’s skilled workforce comprised of 10 per cent tradeswomen by 2028.

While women are entering construction trades at a higher rate than in the past, retention rates remain low. First-year retention rates for women apprentices are estimated at less than 50 per cent, while male apprentices are at 70 per cent.  

“We have women that are being attracted to the trades, and they’re pursuing education in the trades, and they’re moving forward and (doing) apprenticeships and then they’re not sticking around and, in some cases, just after one year. So I think there’s something going on there beyond our current workplace standards and how we’re approaching this problem,” said Strehlke.

Really, it’s about elevating the conversation around what makes a good, healthy, safe work environment where everyone can thrive, she said.

“And it’s driven by the need to retain tradeswomen — but recognizing that the benefits that will be brought forward don’t just benefit women,” said Strehlke.

“Anytime you’ve got a male-dominated industry, or an industry where historically women have been underrepresented, or other groups have been underrepresented, you have to dig a little bit deeper to see ‘What’s that about?’ Because probably there are cultures and norms that grow up around the dynamics of those groups not being involved — so now it’s a matter of making space for them.”

It’s about fixing the system, not fixing the women, said Atchison.

“The women were being trained, they were coming into the worksites with an expectation of doing the work, putting in the time, applying their skills. And for whatever reasons, the worksites were not set up to facilitate their success. And so that’s what we have set out to do with the Builders Code is to give employers the necessary tools to embrace the fact that a skilled tradesperson is an asset, and not a gender,” he said.

“By signing on to the pledge, they’re making a commitment to adhere to the policies and the fundamental principles.”

Suite of resources

Through the Builders Code program, employers can access posters that state the employer follows the Builders Code and list behaviours that can cause stress and distraction, and will not be tolerated (such as insulting or condescending orders, or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature).

There are also two types of policies available at for small and large employers, outlining acceptable workplace policies around recruitment, retention and culture, along with covering practices that violate the Builders Code.

More than 90 per cent of construction employers have 20 employees or less, with many transactional or seasonal workers, and many don’t have an HR department, said Atchison.

“(It’s helpful) to have policies that they can rely on (that) are just outside of that general HR vernacular that some of the larger companies and maybe more… sophisticated companies might already have,” he said.

“If they really are committed to the Builders Code, and becoming an employer of choice, they will then be able to sign up their crew for Builders Code training, they will be able to send their site supervisors and foreman… and they as owners will also be able to elevate their game and understanding of what it means to adopt to the Builders Code.”

Many contractors and employers have their own policies and programs in place, said MacKinnon.

“This is truly meant to be an enhancement or to align with what they have. If they didn’t have anything, it could be something that they could clearly adopt as something new to their respective organizations.”

Training is being rolled out specific to owners and executives, site managers, and crews. Classroom training will be offered in partnership with B.C.’s four regional construction associations.

In addition, equity advisers can help construction employers navigate HR situations on the worksite related to issues such as hazing, harassment and bullying.

The B.C. construction sector is providing solutions, said Strehlke. While there may be new legislation around bullying and harassment and these issues are investigated and may involve WorkSafeBC, this project is providing resources.

Recognition program

There will also be a recognition program for the exemplary employers “who are doing everything that we could hope or making incremental improvements in the workplace culture that they are providing to their skilled workforce,” said Atchison.

Minerva is working in partnership with the construction sector and other partners to develop a scorecard where employers that sign the pledge will be encouraged to track their progress and start to see how they can improve, said Strehlke.

“Employers are wary to sign something publicly because once they do so, they know that they are opening themselves up to evaluation or scrutiny, whether that’s from their own employees, or from other members of the public,” she said.

“So, I think those who will sign on to the pledge and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this’ are going to be sincere. And I think we’ll have early adopters and those who are really seeing this as a business imperative.”

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