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Halifax site where crane collapsed had history of safety violations, but no fines or penalties

The final pieces of a crane, shown in a handout photo, that collapsed onto a building in Halifax last month, during post-tropical storm Dorian, have been removed.
The final pieces of a crane, shown in a handout photo, that collapsed onto a building in Halifax last month, during post-tropical storm Dorian, have been removed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nova Scotia Government

The site of the crane that collapsed during Hurricane Dorian last year had a history of health and safety violations, but was never fined or penalized for any of them.

The contractor working on the Brenton Street development was cited at least four times for violations and workplace injuries between January and September 2019, including one formal warning and three compliance orders.

But the Department of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) division never issued an administrative penalty to Lead Structural Formwork Ltd., which owned the tower crane the came down in high winds on Sept. 7, 2019.

“The compliance history of a work site is definitely a huge factor that goes into determining, you know, the next steps when it comes to enforcement,” said Scott Nauss, senior director of inspection and compliance for the OHS Division.

“And you know I can’t really speak to past compliance history at that site, given the situation.”

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The safety violations, described on workplace inspection reports, were part of a 582-page package obtained by Global News under Freedom of Information laws. They are unrelated to the crane’s eventual collapse, but raise questions about OHS enforcement in the province.

Lead Structural Formwork did not respond to requests for comment by phone or email on Monday.

W.M. Fares group is the developer on the site. In an emailed statement, company vice president Maurice Fares said, “Lead (Structural) Formwork is one of the premier formwork contractors in the city of Halifax. All of our contractors, including (Lead), maintain the highest safety standards on a daily basis on our job site.”

READ MORE: Halifax tower crane ‘malfunctioned’ four months before collapse — redacted engineer’s report

The first safety issues on record are marked in a hazard assessment of the crane site completed on Feb. 1, 2019.  Sixteen safety risks classified as “severe” and “moderate” are identified, including a risk of falling from height.

One month later, one of Lead’s worker’s was injured while using the crane, as a load of metal formwork jacks came loose and started to fall from a height of more than eight feet. People on site called 911, but the nature of the worker’s injuries were redacted from documents.

An OHS officer issued Lead’s first compliance order on April 2 — an order to ensure all staff who rig a load are trained in the proper procedures.

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Two weeks later, another of Lead’s workers was injured in a fall, prompting another inspection on April 29 and a second compliance order. In this case, the documents show that Lead was warned for failing to report the incident to the Department of Labour “immediately or within 24 hours,” as required by law.

While the OHS officer was on the worksite investigating the fall, he also observed a worker lifting and placing plywood on a bracket scaffold while on a whaler, with insufficient clearance for his feet.  That employee “proceeded to cross the whaler approximately 1.4 metres above vertical rebar.”

This incident resulted in another compliance order issued on May 1 to create fall protection safe work plan.

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
Exclusive: Global News investigation uncovers ‘huge risk’ at N.S. construction sites

The work site was inspected again on June 7, the date that R&D Crane was modifying the tower crane after a malfunction. Work was underway to remove the turret, jib, and sections of the crane in order to install a new working section, although the nature of the malfunction itself is never disclosed in the internal government documents.

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The inspection report says that work was completed to satisfaction.

The next inspection report is dated Sept. 5, two days before Hurricane Dorian made landfall as a post-tropical storm in Halifax. The report states that Lead’s supervisor was planning to prepare the cranes for extreme weather by removing rigging material, placing the crane in weather vane mode and stowing the hook.

Two days later, the crane collapsed over two downtown Halifax buildings, putting public safety at risk, causing millions of dollars in damage, and detouring traffic for several weeks. Despite this history of provincial OHS infractions, the Department of Labour confirmed that it never issued an administrative penalty to Lead for its work at the crane site.

READ MORE: Nova Scotians affected by hurricane Dorian can now apply for assistance

The OHS division’s Nauss declined to comment on the documents obtained by Global News or the crane collapse directly, as its cause is still under provincial investigation.

Speaking broadly, however, he said the province takes an education-first approach to OHS enforcement and uses administrative penalties as a last resort.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into play,” he explained.

“[The OHS officer] knows the compliance history of the site or employer, the nature of the violation and how serious the violation is, the due diligence that’s demonstrated by the employer.”
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But Lead has been fined by the province before: $500 in 2016 for failing to complete a hazard assessment prior to the start of an unrelated project, and in 2015, it received a $500 fine for not having a fall protection plan.

That same fall protection issue was cited at the crane site in May 2019. Asked how many warnings should be issued before resorting to fines, Nauss said “it depends on the situation.”

“There are instances where, you know, an officer arrives on the site and it’s the first time inspecting an employer, and yet it’s an obvious violation. I’ll use the example of working at heights without fall protection — that could trigger a penalty if the employer is not demonstrating any due diligence and it’s an obvious violation and the employee is at serious risk.

“Now other situations — maybe it’s an administrative issue… or a lack of posting, or it could be a lack of first aid training, and the employer has made some reasonable efforts to get into compliance… that could lead to warning or a compliance order.”

Click to play video 'Progress slow but steady at site of collapsed crane in Halifax' Progress slow but steady at site of collapsed crane in Halifax
Progress slow but steady at site of collapsed crane in Halifax

Heather Cruickshanks, a founding member of Merit Nova Scotia, which represents open shop (non-unionized) contractors, agreed that OHS enforcement is nuanced. In the case of the crane site, she said the documents obtained by Global News don’t contain enough “background” to determine whether fines should or should not have been laid against Lead.

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It’s not about the number of infractions, she explained, but the context in which they took place.

“These could be issues that are being worked on. They may not be quick fixes,” Cruickshanks said.

“Somebody could be issued an order but it may take time for them to bring themselves into compliance… I know there are always situations and circumstances are attached to every one of those items.”

Administrative penalties are issued under the Workplace Health and Safety Regulations and separate from court-ordered fines or summary offence tickets issued by OHS officers.

For employers, contractors and companies, OHS administrative fines are $500 on the first offence, $1,000 on the second and $2,000 on the third, or subsequent offences. For employees, it’s $100, $200 and $500, respectively.

The Department of Labour does not publish the names of companies it fines this way, or disclose whether fines have been issued.

Correction: This article was updated on Jan. 15, 2019 to clarify that the hazard assessment was not a provincial government document.