Building division focuses on bunkhouses

Race on to prepare for 2021 growing season

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Norfolk’s building division has taken steps to speed construction of and modifications to bunkhouses now that farmers are facing a second growing season during the pandemic.

In a note to Norfolk council last week, Fritz Enzlin, Norfolk’s chief building official, says two employees have been tasked with overseeing the execution of bunkhouse-related building permits.

“Having dedicated staff working specifically and directly with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit as well as farm operators has provided a more timely response,” Enzlin says. “This will ensure consistent review of building permit applications resulting in a more efficient turnaround for permit issuance.”

Bunkhouse design and occupancy have been top-of-mind in Norfolk County and – to a lesser extent – Haldimand County since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 global pandemic last March.

Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health, provided local farmers with an extra hoop to jump through last year when he capped the number of migrant workers who could serve their mandatory, 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada at three per bunkhouse. This rule continues in place regardless of floor area.

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Area farmers have said that this puts them at a disadvantage to other health districts which have opted for the federal standard. Service Canada’s guidance calls for two metres of social distancing at all times during the quarantine period. Under this formula, floor area dictates how many workers can quarantine in any given bunkhouse.

Local farmers have also complained because Nesathurai’s standard makes it difficult for them to situate their labour force in a timely manner during sensitive periods of the growing season. Some farmers last year walked away from crops ready to harvest for lack of reliable help.

Nesathurai justifies his position by noting that highly contagious pathogens such as COVID-19 spread rapidly in “congregate settings.” Because of their close confines, Nesathurai said bunkhouses meet this criteria and must be managed carefully.

Looking ahead to 2021, many farmers are planning modifications that will allow them to quarantine more workers in the same building.

This requires installing partitions and new entrances and exits to satisfy fire-code requirements. Some growers are adding amenities such as new kitchens, bathrooms, showers and laundry rooms to increase opportunities for social distancing.

All of this is putting additional pressure on Norfolk’s building division to act quickly. Farmers who employ 100 or more offshore workers will welcome their first in March and April.

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In his update, Enzlin noted there are more than 600 bunkhouses in the Haldimand and Norfolk health district. He said farms in the two counties employed about 6,000 people last year. Nearly 4,000 of these were from Mexico or the Caribbean.

With two dedicated staff in place, Enzlin says the turnaround time for processing bunkhouse permits is 10 to 20 days, depending on the number of workers to be accommodated.

“It is strongly recommended that those building new bunkhouses, renovating existing bunkhouses, or renovating other buildings – example, residential homes — for the purpose of accommodating temporary farm workers consult the building department and health unit well in advance to ensure permits can be obtained and requirements met before the final inspection for worker approval is conducted,” Enzlin says.

In a recent report to Norfolk and Haldimand’s board of health Nesathurai said the local health district welcomed nearly 4,000 offshore workers in 2020 – the highest per capita of any municipality in Canada.

MSonnenberg@postmedia.com