The provincial government has conducted a round of construction site inspections in response to a Global News investigation on health and safety in the construction industry.
On Thursday, Labour and Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis confirmed that occupational health and safety division staff visited every site that could be identified in footage it received from Global News last week.
He said he wasn’t surprised by what the three-part series reported, including allegations that some of the workers captured on tape were in immediate, life-threatening danger as they worked at height without fall protection or on sites with other serious injury hazards.
“It confirms what we already know and what we work very hard as a department to curb,” Kousoulis told Global News.
“And I will say that one fall is one fall too many, but the culture has been improving.”
It’s too early to say what will come of the inspections, if anything, but the minister said he’s glad the topic of construction safety is being spoken about in public. That’s where it needs to happen, he explained, with support from workers, contracting companies, developers and passersby.
“It’s a very simple phone number to remember, 1-800-9-LABOUR, and if you see something, you call it,” he said. “We will come and investigate. It’s anonymous calls, so no one gets outed or has to fear getting reprimanded from it.
Despite the apparent safety risks that continue on some construction sites daily, Kousoulis said he’s confident his department’s approach to health and safety enforcement is effective, and says it’s making headway in changing the problematic elements of construction safety culture.
“We work collaboratively because working with a stick and being punitive doesn’t get the result you want. You want to have a partnership with every organization,” he explained.
WATCH: (Sept. 10, 2019) Construction workers continue to speak out on why safety violations occur
Not everyone shares the minister’s confidence, however.
Robert Henry, a carpenter with more than 40 years of experience in the construction industry, said he believes construction safety culture has taken a turn for the worst.
Reaching out to Global News after watching the series, he said the issue of cost-cutting through safety shortcuts isn’t limited to Nova Scotia, but common across the construction industry nationwide.
Last week, he said he was ‘dismissed’ from a job he had been hired to do because he raised health and safety concerns on site.
“The workers were more intent to satisfy the owner of the company as opposed to working safe,” Henry said.
“It’s this new culture of unqualified people that are in the trade now, that are causing, I think, this safety issue.”
Little training is required to work as a general labourer in the province’s construction industry, about 70 to 80 per cent of which operates using non-unionized, or ‘open shop’ workers.
Heather Cruickshanks, a founding member of Merit Nova Scotia, which represents those workers, addressed allegations that construction safety is worse in the open-shop sector, which “plays by the same playbook” as unionized workers.
“It’s really not about us and them and who’s better; it’s about making sure that employee goes home safe,” she said in an interview. “If we don’t all strive for that then we’re doing the wrong thing.”
Cruickshanks said she was “appalled” by the footage captured in the Global News investigation, but like others, said her concerns lie primarily with the multi-unit residential builders.
When a developer decides to build a project, it’s done independently, she explained, which means there may not be a project manager or general contractor that is committed to occupational health and safety guidelines.
“So they’re going in and they’re basically subbing everything out themselves and pulling the project together,” she said.
“So there’s no hub, there’s no person to administer, follow and make sure that all these rules are followed and addressed, and to educate their employees.”
While there are plenty of good developers out there, Cruickshanks said it’s possible that some are unfamiliar with OHS regulations, and in that case, education is the answer.
As a way to push forward on open-shop construction safety, she suggested that the Halifax Regional Municipality require a safety certificate of recognition before it issues any permits to build.
Damon Alcock, chief safety services officer for Construction Safety Nova Scotia, said the Global News series showed “some of the realities of construction safety today,” but overall, construction safety has come a long way in the last 25 years.
He applauded the sources who provided interviews during the investigation and encouraged others to raise their voices on safety concerns as well.
“In your articles, you reference them as ‘whistleblowers’,” he said. “I reference them as brave leaders, and that’s what we need. We need those people to step up and be those leaders, bring the issues forward that people aren’t aware of.”
None of the developers whose footage is shown in this story provided comment on the investigation.