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Investigations

EXCLUSIVE: Sources identify ‘huge risk’ on Nova Scotia construction sites

WATCH: A Global News investigation looked into the health and safety on Nova Scotia construction sites, and some of the unearthed findings have been disturbing. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

A Global News investigation has uncovered what appears to be immediate, life-threatening risk on some Nova Scotia construction sites, say sources with expertise in construction health and safety.

They allege the footage contains dozens of occupational health and safety concerns, ranging in severity from workers without hard hats under heavy metal objects to workers at extreme heights without any fall protection.

Other possible infractions captured in the tape include uncapped rebars, which can pose risk of impalement, inadequate or non-existent guard rails to protect workers from falls, sites with damaged or no fences to prevent public access, trip and fall hazards, and others.

The footage was shot and obtained in the Halifax area between July and August with assistance from whistleblowers, and raises serious questions about compliance with safety regulations in Nova Scotia.

Brad Smith, executive director of the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades, said he wasn’t surprised by what’s captured in the Global News tape, particularly on non-unionized and multi-residential sites.

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“There are some significant challenges around that space… it’s an industry of mixed contractors, some good and some bad,” he said in an interview, adding that unionized sites tend to be much safer.

Smith used words like “huge, huge risk” to describe trip and fall hazards he saw in the footage, and “crazy” to describe a construction site with broad sections that were easily accessible to the public. One image even contained a resident cycling through an open construction site next to heavy machinery.

“The ones with those open stairwells, people working on the edge without fall arrest, without rails, those are the huge risks there, and that’s where the deaths and really traumatic injuries occur, is in falls,” Smith added. “So anything around that, that’s a zero tolerance area.”

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A cyclist is seen riding through a construction site in Halifax Regional Municipality next to heavy machinery.
A cyclist is seen riding through a construction site in Halifax Regional Municipality next to heavy machinery.

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Three construction workers, all managers or supervisors with a decade or more of experience, also viewed the footage and identified what they perceived to be several instances of extreme risk to human life, along with other, less severe issues such as lack of protective eye wear.

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They requested anonymity in this investigation, out of concern their comments could jeopardize their jobs.

None of the developers whose footage was shown publicly in this story provided comment on the investigation, except the Bedford-based Orkid Homes. Owner Bilal Elassal, who declined an on-camera interview, said he was concerned by the rooftop footage shot at one of his company’s homes, and would speak with the contractor about adherence to provincial health and safety regulations.

“It’s concerning for sure because the safety of them is our number one priority,” he told Global News after watching it. “We do discuss the safety details with every contractor we hire… When we see something we point it out but we’re not 24 hours over their shoulders.”

All but two of the workers on the sites shown in this story would connect Global News with the person in charge of site safety. The two safety heads reached agreed to an interview, then cancelled and declined to comment.

Some of the contractors also refused to name the company they worked for.

WATCH: Nova Scotia’s health and safety division investigating construction worker’s death in Truro (Dec. 21, 2017)

Nova Scotia’s health and safety division investigating construction worker’s death in Truro

Other builders spoke generally about the atmosphere of construction safety compliance in Nova Scotia, and agreed that cutting safety corners is not uncommon. Like Smith, however, both were proud of their respective organization’s safety record and outlined extensive measures they take to keep workers safe.

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“I don’t believe that the health and safety is being respected to the level that it needs to be in the residential construction in Nova Scotia,” said Keir Hood, operations manager for home builder Cresco Construction Ltd. “The regulations are very clear but there’s just not a high degree of compliance right now.”

“I think there’s a lot of things that need to change,” added Southwest Construction safety manager Jason Comeau.

“Having safety officers or advisors on sites helps out a little bit cause at least that’s a set of eyes that’s always looking at that aspect of the job. So I think that’s a lot of the things that are missing on some job sites, but I think things are progressively getting better. It’s just, we’re at that curve point.”

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Last year, the Worker’s Compensation Board (WCB) of Nova Scotia received more than 500 injury claims from the residential and commercial construction industry, and over the last four years, eight workers have died on the job.

Total construction industry injury claims to WCB have been relatively stable since 2014, but in the last decade, the number of claims resulting in time lost from work have actually decreased 30 per cent.

Construction in Nova Scotia is getting safer say sources, but there’s still a long way to go.

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“There’s still an attitude of low bid, get it done cheap,” said Smith. “And they will risk the injury, they’ll risk the worker to get the job done quickly rather than invest the extra money and do an added value procurement that recognizes the safety of the worker.”

Sources say this hole inside a Halifax Regional Municipality construction site is a major and dangerous fall risk to workers.
Sources say this hole inside a Halifax Regional Municipality construction site is a major and dangerous fall risk to workers.

READ MORE: One man injured in industrial accident in Halifax

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education enforces occupational health and safety in Nova Scotia, and like other provinces, relies on the Internal Responsibility System, in which “employers, employees and contractors all have an obligation to make workplace health and safety a priority in their workplaces.”

But it has few inspection resources to keep tabs on the construction industry, charging 36 OHS officers, four inspectors and some support staff with more than 30,000 employers across the province. Not all construction sites, it confirmed, receive an inspection.

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“Each year, the OHS division relies on statistics and data from our own operations, as well as our ongoing partnerships with organizations such as WCB Nova Scotia and safety association across the province to identify trends of high-risk sectors, and determine where to focus our planned inspection efforts,” reads a written statement from the department.

Unannounced inspections, it added, also stem from workplace incidents, complaints, tips and requests.

The department agreed to an on-camera interview for this investigation, but cancelled it at the last minute. It has received a package of Global News footage, and said it follows up on “each complaint and tip” it receives.

To date, no charges have been brought as a result of the clips.

Questioned about construction health and safety during an August scrum, Labour and Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis said:

“The culture has changed it has been improving. There’s always room for improvement because the nature of construction work, it is quite dangerous work, they’re working in elevated spaces, on scaffolding. The areas I have of concern, which is the areas that we see the most risk is roofing.”

More to come.

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