A workplace accident in which a 28-year-old pipe-layer was crushed to death while working in a trench in Burnaby is the focus of a rare criminal investigation by the RCMP.

Jeff Caron was killed and co-worker Thomas Richer was injured on Oct. 11, 2012, when a wall collapsed on them 
while they were replacing sewer lines for the City of Burnaby.

WorkSafeBC investigated the incident, and concluded a series of failures contributed to Caron's death, but has yet to impose any penalties, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation by the Burnaby RCMP.

Richer, who has not worked since the accident, is now campaigning in Caron's memory, demanding legal consequences be imposed on the parties involved.

Jeff Caron

Pipe-layer Jeff Caron, 28, was killed on Oct. 11, 2012 when a wall collapsed on him

Richer says he warned his foreman before the accident that a crack in the concrete retaining wall above their trench was getting bigger.

“I told him, this isn't safe, we shouldn't be in here” says Richer, who claims the foreman did not listen to him.

“The wall is shifting. It’s not safe, the thing is going to fall. No, we were ordered back in the trench."

According to WorkSafeBC’s inspection report, 10 minutes later, the wall cracked in two and collapsed, fatally crushing Caron and fracturing Richer’s ribs.

“I watched the wall come and hit Jeff in the centre of the back and just reached out”, says Richer.

Richer says he still suffers from a back injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the accident.

Hazards were not addressed

At the time of the incident, Caron and Richer were working for J Cote and Son Excavating, which was hired by the City to do the work, in conjunction with Earthbitat Engineering and Vector Engineering.

Thomas Richer

Co-worker Thomas Richer also suffered fractured ribs in the incident.

WorkSafeBC's investigation concluded that the City of Burnaby, the excavation company and the two engineering firms all failed to address the hazard presented by the wall.

The agency issued six orders to J Cote and Son, for failing to provide a safety program, failing to recognize hazards, and failing to deal with them when workers reported them.

It also issued orders to the City of Burnaby, for failing to provide information about the hazards posed by the structure and failing to report apparently hazardous structures next to the excavation.

WorkSafeBC also concluded that a failure by the professional engineer at Earthbitat to recognize the hazardous conditions imposed by structures “directly adjacent to an excavation” was an underlying factor in the incident.

Right to refuse unsafe work

The agency's report says work should have stopped the moment Richer voiced concerns, but it didn’t. It also found the workers were not sufficiently informed of their right to refuse unsafe work.

Richer is angry his concerns were ignored.

“Should have been a crime scene, like they investigate every other homicide. This was a homicide I believe. Jeff was killed, I was viciously assaulted,” said Richer.

“My cries for help were just put aside, and when you have your superior officers and any engineer … telling us that it's safe...

Cindy Kahm

Caron's mother Cindy Kahm hopes someone is held accountable for her son’s death (CBC)

"Then like WorkSafeBC said, we had the right to refuse unsafe work. Well, they're telling us it was safe, it didn't matter what I said,” said Richer.

Caron's mother Cindy Kahm, who lives on Little Pine First Nation some 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, says she hopes someone is held accountable for her son’s death.

"Hallelujah. Thank you. There's somebody that's listening” said Kahm, when the CBC informed her police were now looking into the accident.

“My son’s life is gone only as a result of someone’s greed,” said Kahm, who wonders why there wasn’t a protective cage used to protect the pipe layers.

Excavation firm denies responsibility

The excavation company, J Cote and Son, says the trench was dug as instructed by the professional engineer.

Earthbitat Engineering would not comment when contacted by CBC.

In a statement, J Cote and Son's lawyer says the excavation company is appealing WorkSafeBC’s findings which "are premised on a mistaken understanding of the steps taken prior to the…. accident."

The company says an independent third party confirms its opinionIn addition, J Cote and Son is suing the City of Burnaby for the delay and extra costs incurred after the accident, under the terms of their contract.

City of Burnaby blames engineers

Derrick Corrigan

Burnaby Mayor Derrick Corrigan says the city will co-operate fully with the police investigation. (CBC)

In its response to the lawsuit from J Cote and Son​, the City of Burnaby says the wall was “clearly visible" and that a geotechnical report recommended the work be done using “a trench shoring box and restricted sidewalls.”

WorkSafeBC found the City of Burnaby failed to provide its contractor with information about the hazards posed by the wall.

Burnaby Mayor Derrick Corrigan says the city may apply for a review of WorkSafeBC’s findings. 

“We’re certainly going to seek some sort of recourse in order to correct the record before anyone draws any conclusions about the city's role in these circumstances," Corrigan said.

"That being said, we feel absolutely terrible that a worker was killed on a job for the City of Burnaby.”

Corrigan says the city will co-operate fully with the police investigation.

Meanwhile, the city is suing Earthbitat Engineering​ by way of a Third Party Notice, saying the city is not responsible for the fatal accident and pointing the finger at the engineering firm.

Earthbitat Engineering had not responded to the Third Party Notice at the time of writing.

For his part, Thomas Richer has started a Facebook page called “Justice for Jeff” and is hoping to re-train as an occupational health and safety officer.