Three Halifax-area contractors have been reprimanded for operating unsafely on construction sites after a Global News investigation revealed “non-compliance” issues in the residential construction sector.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Division staff inspected 26 construction sites following the series, which aired in September, and issued official warnings on three sites whose workers were not using fall protection equipment.
It also gave warnings to three other sites that didn’t have proper fall protection plans or were missing other required health and safety documents.
“It’s 86 per-cent compliance, which means we’re better than we have been based upon past focused inspection like this,” said Harold Carroll, executive director of the OHS Division. “Even one site not being compliant is a concern and that’s why we’re continually trying to get more information out.”
In September, the Department of Labour received a flash drive of Global News footage that captured what appeared to be serious health and safety risks on several construction sites around Halifax. Those risks included workers at heights with no fall protection, uncapped rebar, trip and fall hazards, inadequate or non-existent guard rails, and a lack of fencing to keep the public safe from harm.
An internal email accessed through freedom-of-information legislation reveals that within two weeks, the OHS Division completed its inspections and decided a new construction safety education initiative was necessary.
“Following the Global News story and the inspections in the Bedford area, we have confirmed that there is still an issue with non-compliance in the residential sector,” wrote Carroll.
“While we still need to work with the sector folks responsible for residential construction, we should be doing more to inform and influence others.”
In addition to the warnings issued, Carroll directed his team to create a pamphlet-style safety information card to prompt anyone hiring construction workers to “ask the right questions if they are planning work on their property at heights.”
The information cards are still being developed, but Carroll said they could contain questions about what kind of insurance, training and safety equipment prospective contractors have, and whether they can produce proof of such certification in advance of hiring.
He hopes to have them ready to go early in 2020 and to distribute them at trade shows, site inspections and the desks of partners and stakeholders, such as local chambers of commerce, safety training groups and real estate agents.
“This is a way to get information into the hands that have the greatest influence on hiring people that know how to do the work safely, versus hiring someone that may do the work a little cheaper, but does it much less safe because they’re saving money through reduced safety protocols,” he explained.
The initiative was applauded by Joe Treen, OHS director at Safety Services Nova Scotia, which provides workplace health and safety training, consulting and auditing to companies across the province.
“I think that’s a really helpful response, because if the purchasers of the products are demanding that they be of a certain standard, then the sellers of the products have to adapt to that,” he told Global News.
“We demanded years ago that cars be equipped with seat belts… Guess what, the manufacturers started putting safety belts in.”
The Department of Labour takes a preventive, education-first approach to workplace safety enforcement in the province, issuing warnings and orders to comply before initiating prosecution, stop-work orders or administrative penalties.
It can also lay charges for violations of the Nova Scotia OHS Act.
Earlier this month, Halifax Regional Police laid a charge of criminal negligence causing death against the supervisor on duty when labourer Brandon Alcorn died from a fall on a Dartmouth construction site in March 2018.
The province is still investigating that case for OHS Act violations.
In the aftermath of safety risks identified in Global News’ investigation, Alcorn’s family is concerned that the department isn’t taking construction compliance seriously enough. Upon hearing about the warnings and safety cards in development, Alcorn’s stepmother called for more concrete punitive action.
“A warning’s not an adequate response at all,” said Janice Way. “A fine’s not enough, because they’re only small slaps on the wrist.
“What’s it going to take, someone else losing their life?”
Alcorn’s case is the second in Nova Scotia that will be prosecuted using the Westray Bill, which was written in response to the Westray mining disaster of 1992 and allows the federal government to hold companies criminally responsible if they fail to protect their staff from injury and death.
Way said she’s pleased charges have been laid in her stepson’s death and while she sympathizes with the accused’s family, she hopes it sends a strong message to construction companies who take safety shortcuts on job sites.
“It’s mixed emotions. Nobody wins, really. Nothing is going to bring Brandon back,” Way explained. “Maybe now, if someone’s held accountable — jail time — things will be changed. They’ll make sure safety’s in place for everybody.”
Alcorn’s supervisor, Jeff Gooch, is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 25.