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“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

By Kujtim Boka| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure
The GTA Restoration crew preparing to decontaminate a 150,000-square-foot factory in Mississauga

I’m a supervising technician at GTA Restoration, a company that specializes in environmental and biohazard cleanups. Normally, we handle things like fire and water damage, as well as mould and asbestos removal, in condos, houses, offices and factories. Ever since the pandemic hit Canada, we’ve taken on a different role: decontaminating sites exposed to coronavirus. When a company discovers one of their employees has the virus, they call us to disinfect the place.

In many ways, coronavirus decontamination isn’t too different from our typical work. We start off by making sure the site has been cleared of all employees, and then we set up a containment area where we change into our personal protective equipment. We begin with shoe covers and then put on a heavy-duty full-body suit. For biohazard cleanups where we interact with toxic chemicals, we also wear full face respirators, but those aren’t necessary for Covid-19 cleanups. Instead, we use N95 masks.

One of our technicians uses a thermal fogger to spray everything with a non-toxic plant-based cleaning solution that kills all viruses—it can spray 20 feet in each direction. We then use battery-powered spraying packs to add a thin layer of anti-bacterial solution on the floors and what we call “high touch points,” or surfaces used all the time, like tables, chairs and door knobs. In sites with confirmed Covid-19 cases, we then repeat our process all over again, just to be extra safe.

It is hard work that requires a lot of focus. My technicians and I have been tense lately because we know how important our work is. Just the other day, we did a cleanup of a Scarborough house because a man living there had tested positive for Covid-19. Decontaminating the house was challenging since there were lots of small items that had to be sprayed. But we wanted to help the man’s family feel safe enough to move back into their home. We are proud whenever we complete a job like this because we are protecting people.

“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure
The author on the job

The bigger the sites, the more challenging the job. We recently did a cleanup of a 150,000 square-foot factory in Mississauga. It took us two days to carefully cover each potentially contaminated area, from washrooms and offices to the factory floor. Doing 90 per cent of the job is pointless if you don’t do that last 10 per cent. You can’t afford to cut corners or make mistakes on jobs like that.

“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

We are experienced when it comes to handling viruses. This is what we do. We are taking every precaution possible while working on contaminated sites. For example, we use a double seal on our gloves, first with duct tape and then with our full body suits. And we all look out in case someone accidentally removes their personal protective equipment incorrectly. We put ourselves in compromising situations nearly every day and we have to look after each other.

We have a duty to protect our community, to keep essential businesses open and to protect as many people as we can to flatten the curve. We can help ensure our healthcare providers aren’t overwhelmed with cases. And we are all connected: I have three young children at home right now, and I am concerned for them. When we protect our communities, we protect ourselves and our families.

The rest of the GTA Restoration crew

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“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

Elvis Xheka, 37, technician “I recently moved here from Albania—I’ve only been in Canada for six months. I want to do my best to help my new community. I’m not scared. I’m happy because every factory and office we go to, we are helping people get back to work.”

 

“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

María Alejandra López, 30, technician “With this pandemic, I am not just concerned about myself. I am concerned about the health of all people, as well as how Covid-19 is affecting Canada’s economy. That’s why I feel a lot of satisfaction from helping disinfect and counteract Covid-19. It makes me feel like a better person.”

 

“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

Alex Lapa, 21, technician “I feel good that I’m doing my part in fighting the Covid-19 problem. We’re all experienced in our team, so none of us are afraid something bad is going to happen. But we have to be careful in every step of our job, even when putting on and taking our equipment. Being careful is how we stay safe.”

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“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

Jennifer Manjarrez Gutierrez, 20, technician “We’re in the middle of a stressful situation. We’ve all had to completely change our lifestyles. Living in Toronto, I was used to practically bumping into others, and now we’re living in isolation. But I am glad I am keeping busy with my job because I am helping places like supermarkets stay open.”

 

“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

Arantza Garcia Zarate, 24, technician “This whole situation makes me reflect on how small we are before Mother Nature. But I feel positive—I think all the measures we’re taking right now will work in the end. Covid-19 has become part of my job. We have to take extra security measures, which is important because people need to do their jobs. After we finish our work, those people have security and tranquility.”

 

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“When we protect our communities, we protect our families”: How a hazmat crew decontaminates warehouses and offices after Covid exposure

Mussab Hadout, 32, technician “On my first job at a site with a confirmed Covid-19 case, everyone was nervous. I was nervous myself because I’d never seen Toronto like this, with so many people staying home and the streets so empty. We took all the safety precautions we could while working, which relaxed me a little. But any time you need to take precautions, it’s natural to feel a bit nervous. In the last week or so, I’ve gotten used to it.”

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