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TTC imposes stricter mask rule for employees, saying workers failed to observe social distancing

TTC imposes stricter mask rule for employees, saying workers failed to observe social distancing
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The TTC is imposing a stricter mask-wearing policy on its workforce as Toronto’s COVID-19 cases spike and the transit agency said it determined employees weren’t adequately observing prevention measures.

The new rules, which require employees to don face coverings virtually anywhere on TTC property where more than one person could be present — including in outdoor spaces and while operating transit vehicles — represents a near complete reversal for the agency, which earlier in the pandemic prohibited workers who said they were concerned about the virus from wearing masks on the job.

In a safety notice the TTC issued to employees Tuesday, the agency said the mandatory mask rule was necessary in part because audits conducted by its safety department “over the last couple of months” discovered “employees gathering outside in larger groups and not respecting physical distancing guidelines.”

By the end of August, just more than three-quarters of workers at inspected transit facilities were complying with social distancing requirements, according to the agency, down from more than 85 per cent earlier in the month. At one subway facility, compliance rates were recorded as zero on two separate weekly inspections in August.

The safety notice also said the stronger policy was necessary because of the the recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases in the city and the increased risk of the virus spreading as students go back to school and ridership increases this month.

The new rules go into effect Thursday and will be in place until at least Dec. 31, according to the notice, which warned that “management will be monitoring compliance and ensuring adherence to this new policy.”

Carlos Santos, president of ATU Local 113, the union that represents most TTC workers, slammed the new policy, saying in an email that while masks are an important tool to fight COVID-19 it would be “a potential safety hazard” to force transit drivers to use them during their shifts.

Santos said that “for some operators, wearing face coverings can be a distraction for the safe operation of buses, streetcars and subways,” and called on the TTC to “do the right thing” and return to the previous policy that made masks optional for drivers.

He accused the TTC of bungling its response to the pandemic.

“ATU Local 113 had to fight for weeks and months to secure what we consider basic protections, such as giving workers the option to wear face coverings on the job and access to (personal protective equipment),” he said.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green defended the agency’s changing policies about masks. “The science has evolved for everyone around the world. What we know and how we respond has always been in conjunction with the best public health advice available,” he said.

Green said it was necessary to mandate mask use for drivers in order to “ensure continuity” for employees who travel to different workplaces throughout the system.

Before this week, the TTC had expected employees to follow Toronto Public Health advice and wear masks when social distancing wasn’t possible, but there were exceptions for workers within non-public areas, and for those behind a physical barrier. Subway and streetcar drivers, who work in cabs fully separated from the public, and bus operators, who are behind a partition, could choose whether to wear a mask.

Under the new policy, in addition to indoor settings workers will be required to wear masks when in any common outdoor area owned or controlled by the TTC, “upon entering and immediately outside TTC properties,” and while driving vehicles.

As early as January , some TTC workers wanted to wear masks while on the job to protect them from the spread of COVID-19 but management prohibited them, citing Toronto Public Health advice that said there was no need for the general public to wear face coverings. The health agency later changed that advice.

As the crisis worsened, the TTC relented and agreed in March to allow workers to wear face coverings, in part to stave off job action from employees who were concerned about working in close contact with crowds as the pandemic tightened its grip on the city.

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As of Sunday, 77 TTC employees had tested positive for COVID-19, out of a staff of about 16,000, according to the agency.

Masks have been mandatory for TTC riders since July 2. Green said the agency’s latest count indicated 97 per cent of passengers are complying with the rule, .
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