A major construction project on Quebec's North Shore has become the first  Hydro-Québec workplace to permit union safety specialists to monitor the work on site, as a response to the deaths of four workers since the project began.

The public utility is eight years into the 11-year, $6.5-billion construction project at La Romaine.

It is the biggest construction project underway in Canada: four new hydroelectric stations are being built, each with their own dams and water reservoirs, about 500 kilometres from the Quebec-Labrador border, north of the municipality of Havre-Saint-Pierre.

Since construction got underway in 2009, four workers have died:

  • Luc Arpin, 51, was killed last December when a wall of rocks fell on the excavator he was operating.
  • Alex-Antoine Proulx, 26, died when he fell two meters onto rocks, in August 2016.

  •  Steeve Barriault drowned when his excavator drove over an ice-covered pit filled with water in  March 2015.

  • Raymond Ste-Marie drowned when his machinery broke through an ice-covered pond in February 2010.

"We are more than happy that Hydro-Québec took that step for the prevention," said Yves Ouellet, the head of the construction wing of the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), about the decision to allow union safety specialists on site. "But we are very sad that it took four deaths to do it."

La Romaine construction

The 11-year La Romaine project involves the construction of four hydroelectric plants. At the peak of construction, 2,000 people worked at the site. (Radio-Canada)

Harsh, isolated conditions

Ouellet said many construction crews have never worked on a site like La Romaine before.

"You work with tonnes and tonnes of rock. The weather conditions are very hard. And you are isolated in the woods, in the middle of nowhere," he said.

At the peak of construction, 2,000 people worked at the site. La Romaine still employs 450 people.

Ouellet said the union's prevention counsellors will spend their time touring the construction site, which covers a vast territory.

La-Romaine-4

Luc Arpin, 51, was killed in December 2016 at the La Romaine-4 site while doing excavation work on the Romaine River. (Hydro-Quebec)

'Some decisions are harder to take'

Hydro-Québec has seven of its own safety agents in place, and its private contractors also have their own advisors.

However, Ouellet said safety experts who take orders from an employer may feel pressure to please their bosses.

"Sometimes there are some decisions that are harder to take," he said.

Under the new arrangement, workers will be able to share their concerns with a union safety specialist without feeling as if they could be seen to be making trouble, he said.

Hydro-Québec spokesman Mathieu Rouy said the utility wanted to give workers more options in the aftermath of the deadly accidents.

"This is a very worrying situation for Hydro-Québec's management," he said.

The public utility took the unusual step of allowing the first union prevention counsellor on the worksite in January.

Two are there now, and a third will be added in about a month.

Call for public inquiry

Hydro-Québec has also launched an internal investigation and set up a special committee to analyze safety practices at every worksite.

Ouellet said it is rare to see this many people die on a project, even one of this magnitude. Those who work there now are afraid, he said.

The FTQ's construction wing is also seeking a full public inquiry into the deaths.

"We need that," he said. "There [are relatives] whose husband or brother died there, and they want to know why."

With files from Julia Page, Susan Campbell and Katy Larouche