A former safety manager at Muskrat Falls is alleging that he was fired for protecting workers during a lightning storm.

Doug Lyons says he was turfed earlier this month by the Italian contractor in charge of the construction site.

Lyons, whose career spans 24 years all across Canada and the Middle East, says he was hired as a safety manager for the megaproject at the end of May. 

He says he couldn't believe it when he was told to leave the work site.

"I was floored. I'd been on megaprojects the majority of my career, multi-billion-dollar projects. Lightning action protocols are very well known in the industry, and followed to the letter," he said.

"I had only been there actually a month, but I was actually the fifth safety manager to be on that job for Astaldi."

In a statement to CBC News, Astaldi Canada said it cannot comment on personnel issues. 

"It causes us great concern when our safety culture is brought into question," the statement said. 

"We can say that whenever an employee takes appropriate action related to the safety and security of our workplace we support those actions unequivocally."

Nalcor Energy, the Crown-owned corporation behind the Muskrat Falls megaproject, says safety is the top priority.

Nalcor vice-president Gilbert Bennett says he backs the decision to stop work because of the lightning threat.

But Bennett says he does not know what went on behind the scenes between Lyons and his employers at Astaldi.

Lightning spotted

Lyons says the incident that led to his dismissal occurred July 2 at around 3 p.m., when one of his safety coordinators spotted lightning in the north corner of the Muskrat Falls project.

Doug Lyons

Doug Lyons, who has worked in the health and safety industry for 24 years, says he was floored when he was fired from his job at the Muskrat Falls work site in early July. (Courtesy Doug Lyons)

Lyons then went to his office, and turned on his lightning detection system — his own personal piece of safety equipment that he brought to the job.

"The detector immediately went into alarm, and indicated that there was lightning within three to eight miles of the work site," he said.

Lyons then enacted the "40-30 lightning action protocol," which he says is well known in the construction industry, especially when cranes are in use on the site. 

The protocol requires any exposed workers to take immediate shelter. Lyons alerted the workers to take cover.

The lightning strikes got closer, and the detector went into full alarm.

About 10 minutes later, Lyons says he got a call from an Astaldi construction manager.

"He was very angry. He was yelling, 'Why did you shut down production?'" he said. 

"I tried to explain to him that I did not try to shut down production, that I had only advised any exposed personnel to take immediate shelter ... He continued to yell at me, and he told me to come to the office immediately."

'I couldn't put people back to work or have people back into an area of exposure in good conscience, because of the severity of the storm.'- Doug Lyons

When Lyons went to the office, he says the manager was "highly agitated" and continued to yell at him for shutting down production.

"I tried to explain to him again what was happening. He obviously didn't understand," Lyons said, noting that Astladi is an Italian company, and not all of its workers at the site are entirely fluent in English.

"At the time, I gave him the radio and the phone, and I told him, he was more than welcome to make the call, but in good faith and in order for me to protect the workers, I couldn't make the call. I couldn't put people back to work or have people back into an area of exposure in good conscience, because of the severity of the storm."

A short time later, when the weather had cleared, Lyons says he announced to employees that it was safe to head back to work.

Then, around 5 p.m., Lyons says he was called into Astaldi's project manager's office.

"I was told I was being terminated, because I shut down production," Lyons said.

"I was given five minutes to grab my things, and I was shuttled off to the airport and put on a plane an hour and a half later."

Cultural differences

Lyons says the whole ordeal happened within a few hours, and he's still left asking why.

"As a professional courtesy, I think I deserved to be told a full explanation of the reasons why, and I didn't feel that I was," he said.

'I did get the impression that [safety] was an inconvenience, and that the project, because of delays and schedule and over-budget, production was the number one priority.'- Doug Lyons

"I was told nothing, really, other than it was unacceptable that I had shut down production, and I was handed a letter that said I was no longer required, and that was it."

Lyons says the lightning protocol had been submitted to, and agreed to, by Nalcor Energy.

But he says there seems to be a disconnect with the company's largest contractor, Astaldi.

"There is a very serious disconnect in terms of comprehension as to what the Canadian culture is and what the Canadian safety expectation is," he said.

Lyons notes that there was a "significant" language barrier with the person he reported to at Astaldi.

"I did get the impression that [safety] was an inconvenience, and that the project, because of delays and schedule and over-budget, production was the number one priority," he said.

'My main concern is with Astaldi... They're doing what I see as the bare minimum to get by.'- Doug Lyons

Lyons says there are currently some serious safety challenges at the Muskrat Falls work site.

"I know that Nalcor has an emphasis on health and safety, and I know that they work very hard towards that, however my main concern is with Astaldi," he said.

"They're doing what I see as the bare minimum to get by."

Nalcor says safety a priority

Meanwhile, Nalcor's vice-president responsible for the Lower Churchill Project says he is aware that work did stop because of the lightning threat on the day in question, and that decision was consistent with safety management protocols.

But Gilbert Bennett says he doesn't know what was going on behind the scenes between Lyons and Astaldi, or why Lyons was dismissed.

li-bennett-gilbert-20120410

Gilbert Bennett is Nalcor Energy's vice-president in charge of the Lower Churchill project. (CBC)

"What else might be happening if we get to maybe an employer-employee relationship, I don't have much information on what might be going on there," Bennett said.

Bennett says Nalcor would take immediate action if it knew the safety of workers was not being put first.

“Safety is our top priority," Bennett told CBC News.

He says Nalcor reviews all contractors’ health and safety plans, and steps in if there are any issues with non-conformance.

“Safety is the most important thing we can think about," Bennett said.

'Safety is the most important thing we can think about.'- Nalcor Energy vice-president Gilbert Bennett

The Nalcor vice-president downplayed Lyons' comments about language issues on the Muskrat Falls site, noting that his experiences with Astaldi employees indicate it is not “a major issue."

And as for Lyons' allegations that safety is an "inconvenience," Bennett also disagrees.

“I don’t have anything to support that," he said. "I’ve been on site a number of times. I’ve seen their work. There’s no evidence to support that. I would reiterate that if we saw any evidence of that situation, we would not hesitate to step in.”

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates