Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Is it time to start jailing employers for killing workers?

This past weekend, the Edmonton Journal reported that the government has laid 19 charges against 3 companies following a 2015 workplace fatality. On April 28, 2015, a labourer died after a trench caved in.

The Journal reports:
Haya Homes Ltd., the infill homes developer, faces six charges, including failure to ensure the regulations and code were followed on a work site and failing to ensure Sahib Contracting Inc. — which had been hired to dig the trench — stabilized the soil in the excavation as required. … 
Sahib Contracting Inc. faces seven charges, including [failing to?] stabilizing the soil in an excavation, ensuring workers had a safe entrance and exit from the excavation and ensuring labourers working in an excavation were competent in doing so. 
Sukhwinder Nagra, named as a prime contractor with Sahib Contracting Inc., faces eight charges, including failing to take reasonable care to protect the safety of a worker, failure to assess a work site for hazards, and failure to stabilize the soil in an excavation.
I cannot confirm any of this because (as of Monday) the government hadn’t provide a press release or updated its list of “charges pending”. The summary of 2015 fatality investigations simply says:
A worker entered a 2-3 meter deep newly excavated water main trench. The trench collapsed and the worker was trapped.
The OHS Code requires any trench (i.e., a hole deeper than it is wide) deeper than 4’10” to have some sort of shoring or grading or other means of protecting workers from a collapse (there are other rules around working near a trench wall).

The absence of information about this fatality means we don’t know much about the circumstances. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the worker entered a trench that was six- to nine-feet deep and had not been shored up against the walls collapsing.  Mostly, we're left with questions:

Was he directed to enter the trench? 

Did he balk? 

Did he jump in before the employer could shore it up? 

Did the employer even have proper shoring materials nearby? 

The worker was a day labourer who may have had no training on proper behaviour around an excavation.

Based on the charges, this sounds like a pretty clear case of employer error and the likely outcome is a plea bargain, a creative sentence (wherein the employers donate cash to a charitable group and get to look good for doing so), and everyone moves on (except the dead worker, of course).

This has been Alberta’s approach for the last decade or so and, if the purpose is to meaningfully reduce fatalities and injuries, it doesn’t seem to be working. What might get the attention of employers (especially small employers in the construction industry) is putting some employers in jail for their negligence. Both the OHS Act and the Criminal Code have provisions for this kind of sentencing.

-- Bob Barnetson

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