Ontario’s construction industry pushes for wearable COVID-19 tracing app

A labour union representing Ontario’s construction industry says its members won’t use the federal government’s new COVID-19 tracking app because it requires the use of smartphones, which are prohibited on job sites for safety reasons.

Instead, Joseph Mancinelli, the international vice-president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), is urging the government to adopt a made-in-Ontario app that includes “wearables,” which feature technology that can be worn on a bracelet or carried in a wallet.

“Cellphones have been basically outlawed in the construction industry,” said Mr. Mancinelli, whose union represents 130,000 construction workers across Canada, 95,000 of them in Ontario.

“You are going to omit all of these construction workers – not only LiUNA – but the whole industry, which is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of workers right across the country. So I don’t get that.”

The federal government launched its smartphone app, called COVID Alert, on Friday. Its use is voluntary, and it is designed to warn users if they’ve been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the more people sign up to use it, the better it will be able to trace – and help slow – the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But Mr. Mancinelli said his members – and likely their families – won’t be using it, suggesting it will have “limited success.” His union has partnered on a pilot project for an app called TraceSCAN, which began as an ecofriendly ridesharing app developed by Toronto-based Facedrive.

With construction sites employing anywhere from a handful of workers to several hundred, Mr. Mancinelli said that without a wearable app that can determine who workers have been in close contact with, sites may be shut down as soon as one case is reported. “From an economic point of view, you’re really hurting the economy,” he said, adding that the same issues will likely apply to other settings, such as the manufacturing sector, or even hospitals and nursing homes if phones aren’t allowed during shifts.

The federal government, asked if it is considering adding a wearable component to its app or adopting TraceSCAN, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Suman Pushparajah, the chief operating officer of Facedrive and leader of the TraceSCAN pilot project, said adapting to different work sites is key to successful contact tracing.

“There is a huge gap, but that is why we focused heavily on the wearable technology as well,” he said.

He said the company is hoping to work with Ottawa to integrate that technology into its tracking app.

COVID Alert, launched in conjunction with Ontario, is a version of COVID Shield, an independent project by a team of developers affiliated with Ottawa-based e-commerce company Shopify. It relies on an interface created jointly by Apple and Google that has been adopted by several other countries, including Britain.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has accused the federal government of blocking Apple and Google from helping his province fix a significant flaw in its contact-tracing app that limits its effectiveness for iPhone users and exposes them to security risks, saying Ottawa insisted that the tech giants focus on its app. Alberta launched its ABTraceTogether in May, becoming the first province to allow smartphone users to track their potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday he had spoken to LiUNA about using its app. “They want to bring it on construction sites, so you know I’m in favour of that, and that’s going to be strictly up to the federal government to decide if they’re going to allow them to do that or not,” he said.

A spokesman for Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said Facedrive’s wearable contact-tracing technologies could fill a gap for workers who, by law, cannot have a smartphone on their person while at work. “We continue to encourage the federal government to engage companies like Facedrive who are coming forward with made-in-Ontario/Canada solutions to keep all workers safe,” Bradley Metlin said.

Mr. Mancinelli said the number of COVID-19 cases on construction sites has remained low because of strict protocols, with his union estimating there have only been about 15 cases.

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