‘It’s the Wild West’: Sources say fear underlies silence on Nova Scotia construction sites

Click to play video: 'Construction workers continue to speak out on why safety violations occur'
Construction workers continue to speak out on why safety violations occur
WATCH: Workers talk about why safety violations occur even when ways to minimize risk are simple and well established. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more. – Sep 10, 2019

As a Global News investigation shines a spotlight on construction safety in Nova Scotia, workers say fear is a factor in their silence on hazards that sometimes put their lives at risk.

It’s a workplace culture in which tattletales are ostracized and whistleblowers are blacklisted, sources explain, in the second of a three-part series on construction industry compliance and enforcement of health and safety rules in the province.

“If someone complains about safety, they’ll find another reason to fire you, so you do your job or you lose your job,” said a project supervisor in the Halifax area, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

If his identity is revealed, he told Global News, he would face “complete loss of employment.” He suspects his company has already lost thousands of dollars in contracts because he insists on work safely and that increases his project costs.

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But there’s always someone else willing to do what he won’t, he added, which allows a quiet practice of putting workers at risk for higher profit to flourish in Nova Scotia.

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

Click to play video: 'Exclusive: Global News investigation uncovers ‘huge risk’ at N.S. construction sites'
Exclusive: Global News investigation uncovers ‘huge risk’ at N.S. construction sites

Another source, a commercial construction manager with two decades of experience in the trades, described the province’s commercial construction industry as “the Wild West.” He too said he’d been fired for raising safety concerns and insisting on purchasing equipment that meets provincial health and safety standards.

“The grey area is where a lot of people take advantage of it too,” he said, describing his own experience bringing safety at work.

“When there’s a question of, ‘What would a reasonable person do?’ They air on the side of nothing… You know what the rules are to follow, if there’s a cost or time ramification, you’re told to ignore them and that’s the problem.”

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This worker also requested anonymity to protect his livelihood.

Brad Smith, executive director of the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades, confirmed that while unionized workers have more job security both on and off site, it’s not unheard of elsewhere in the industry for workers to pay a price for insisting on safety.

“Yeah, that’s a risk in the construction industry,” he said. “There is no seniority, there is no job security, it is all project-based.

“Again there is laws and recourse around that, but it is very difficult for a worker to do that. That is a friction point and a concern… if somebody feels their job’s at risk and their income’s at risk if they report something’s unsafe, that’s an issue.”

It’s not acceptable, Smith added, and while he’s proud of his own members’ track records, said the industry at large is always striving for improvement.

READ MORE: N.S. Department of Labour investigating after incident at Dartmouth Crossing construction site

Global News was met with fear and suspicion from construction workers as it conducted this investigation. Nearly every developer and contractor refused or didn’t respond to requests for an interview, including those whose sites are pictured in this story.

When visited by a reporter, most workers also declined to reveal the name of their employer or the developer who owned the building they were working on. Some didn’t know who the developer was, and in some cases, neither did the realtors taking leasing inquiries for the buildings online.

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But it’s not only fear that keeps many workers quiet, said sources. In some cases, it’s an historic cavalier attitude towards safety to begin with. The first project supervisor said no one wants to be the “sissy” on site.

“We’re used to it. We’re complacent,” he explained. “A lot of guys think safety is completely silly and unneeded… The mentality is, just get the work done. We’re a bunch of hard working individuals that are tough around the edges.”

Jason Comeau, safety manager for Southwest Construction, agreed there’s a “superman mentality,” particularly among experienced workers who have gone incident-free for decades, largely because they were lucky.

“The way I look at it, it’s kind of like the lottery. You’re not going to win every time, but it could potentially happen. It’s the same thing with a fall.”

Brad Smith, executive director of the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades, said he’s proud of his members and their safety track records. Elizabeth McSheffrey / Global News

READ MORE: Worker dead after being crushed during Truro, N.S. home renovation

But that makes it difficult for those who are genuinely concerned about health and safety to insist on it, and come out with careers unscathed.

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“What makes my job difficult is, when I go to a job site and there’s 40 people on site and only my five are wearing hard hats,” explained the Halifax-area project supervisor. “When I leave, the chances of them keeping that PPE (personal protective equipment) on – the chances of that are very unlikely.”

He only agreed to an interview, he added, because he can’t stand to see another, vulnerable worker put in harm’s way because he or she can’t afford to lose a paycheque for refusing unsafe work.

“I just see too many kids, too many 19-year-old kids sweeping floors by edges and going up in lifts they should be in, and going down stairwells without guard rails,” he said. “And they seem to be the people who always get hurt.

“You don’t usually hear about the older, more experienced people getting hurt, especially in Nova Scotia. It’s the younger people who are being told to get the stuff done, who turn a blind eye or who just don’t even understand.”

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READ MORE: One man injured in industrial accident in Halifax

But secrecy isn’t confined to the construction site; Nova Scotia’s Department of Labour and Advanced Education, which enforces occupational health and safety, hasn’t published an end-of-year OHS report since 2013.

It still publishes convictions online, but in a written statement, said it scrapped the annual report because “there was very little uptake in the document.”

The report contained data on division activity, number of investigations launched and details on administrative penalties issued, including names and numbers.

“Based on stakeholder feedback, we began having face to face meetings, where the department presents OHS-related information and connects directly with stakeholders to help inform the OHS division’s annual work plan,” it wrote.

“Additionally, we are currently reviewing best practices across other jurisdictions to determine how we might share this type of information going forward.”

Department officials refused to provide an interview for this investigation and Global News’ request for data on OHS fines issued to companies and individuals in construction after 2013 has gone unanswered, days past deadline.

Asked about the general atmosphere of health and safety compliance in Nova Scotia, the department said it “continues to work with construction sector employers, employees and its safety associations to help promote OHS awareness in Nova Scotia.”

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“Construction work is considered high-risk, but the industry continues to make progress in improving rates of injuries across the sector. Our approach continues to be focused on proactive safety, education and awareness, as opposed to enforcement alone.”

The department has received a package of Global News construction site footage, which sources allege captures serious health and safety concerns, including immediate risk to human life. The department says it follows up on all tips and complaints, although no charges have been laid as a result of the tape to date.

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