An aerial image shows the collapsed roof of a storage tank that was under construction in April 2007. Two workers were killed and five others hurt in the collapse. ((CBC))

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and two other companies face 53 charges under Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act in the April 2007 deaths of two Chinese temporary workers at CNRL's Horizon oilsands project, the province announced Tuesday.

CNRL, Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd. and SSEC Canada Ltd. each face a number of charges, including failing to ensure the health and safety of workers.

Two workers were killed and five others injured in April 2007 when the roof of a massive storage tank under construction collapsed at the site in northern Alberta.

The men were welding the wall structure inside the tank when the roof support structure collapsed on them.

In a news release, the province said the companies also face charges for:

  • Allegedly failing to ensure that a professional engineer prepared and certified drawings and procedures.
  • Allegedly failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly.
  • Allegedly failing to ensure that U-bolt type clips used for fastening rope wire were installed properly.
  • Allegedly failing to ensure that wire rope being used was safe.

The maximum penalty for a first offence under the act is $500,000 for each charge.

Critics call for more inspectors

The charges show the government is not committed to the health and safety of workers, NDP MLA Rachel Notley said.

"The reality is we can charge these companies but if you want to stop people from dying on the job, you have to inspect before the accidents happen," she said. "You have to have enough people in the field to inspect."

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, echoed the call for more inspectors. He said he doubts the province will pursue all the charges filed on Tuesday.

"It's not unusual for the government to throw many charges at a particular employer, and in fact there's a process, a plea-bargaining process, that will eventually see this number, which seems like a dramatic number, whittled down to just a few," he said.

"I don't want to seem cynical about this, but I think the number 53 may have at least something to do with a PR effort on the part of the government to try to make themselves look more aggressive."

Province argues workers are well-protected

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said the charges should put construction companies on notice: "Got to be very clear to anybody that's doing business in Alberta … that whether it's a temporary foreign worker or an Albertan, these are the rules that you follow in Alberta, and the safety of the workers is paramount."

The minister in charge of employment and immigration said people who work in the province's resource sector are well-protected.

"When you look at the thousands of people that are involved there and the number of incidences, albeit these are serious incidences that we're talking about, the oil and gas sector is still one of the safest places to work in,"  Hector Goudreau said.

All three companies are scheduled to make their first appearance in Fort McMurray provincial court on June 8.

The Horizon oilsands project is located about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.