The sentencing of a federal government department in a 2009 boiler explosion that killed one worker and injured two others is expected to happen on Wednesday after lawyers for both sides reached an agreement.

Peter Kennedy, a shift supervisor at the Cliff Central Heating and Cooling Plant, died after the Oct. 19, 2009 explosion burst open a boiler at a Public Works Government Services Canada heating plant just west of Parliament Hill.

Public Works Government Services Canada pleaded guilty in 2012 to violating federal health and safety laws.

Almost five years after the incident, the department’s sentencing hearing got underway on Monday.

But in court on Monday the lawyers for both sides said they had come to an agreement on the facts in relation to the sentencing and are expected to present the agreement to the court on Wednesday.

Investigation revealed gaps in safety knowledge

The charges against the department stemmed from the investigation carried out by Bruce McKeigan, a health and safety officer at Labour Canada who was the primary investigator.

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An explosion at the Cliff Central Heating and Cooling Plant killed one worker and injured two others. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC)

McKeigan says he was shocked when he realized that first line supervisors didn’t know the first thing about most of the health and safety rules.

“I found that very disturbing,”said McKeigan. “It may have to take charging a CEO or even a minister before people really start to pay attention.”

In this case, no individuals, workers or managers were ever singled out, fired or punished, rather the entire department is taking the blame and will pay the $300,000 fine.

The sentencing hearing could decide whether the federal government department needs to be put on probation.

Workers looking for answers

As the hearings get underway, some workers at the Cliff Plant are still looking for answers as to what exactly caused the explosion.

“They’d like to have been able to have walked away from this with a clearer understanding of what caused the events that lead to Peter Kennedy’s death. Not having that has always left them with a level of uncertainty,” said Donna Lackie, national president of the Government Services Union.

But the same workers who want answers are not expected to be in court this week, and if they are, they won’t be talking.

Lackie said each worker was asked to give a victim impact statement, but each one has declined. Some workers tell CBC they’re worried about retribution and not being promoted if they speak out.

With the agreement on Monday, the sentencing hearing is likely to shorten from the original five days planned to a half day, meaning it is unlikely there will be testimony from several provincial and federal inspectors who investigated after the explosion.

During the sentencing hearing, the court was expected to hear a report detailing just how safe the operations of the heating and cooling plant are now.

Public Works lawyers 'vigorously oppose' probation

Some workers told CBC News that while much has been done to bring the Cliff Plant up to better health and safety standards, they don’t believe much has changed at other Public Works facilities. 

That could change if the department is put under probation. The court will decide this week if, along with the maximum fine, Public Works will be monitored to make sure it obeys health and safety laws in the future. This is something that the department’s lawyers have said they would "vigorously oppose.”

While some workers think additional health and safety monitoring could be a good idea, Lackie sides with management.

“I’ve never seen what a probationary situation would look like, I can’t imagine how one would monitor and implement that and ensure that, it wouldn’t be easy,” said Lackie.

A number of provincial and federal authorities had also been expected to testify this week, including labour, fire and technical standards inspectors.


Background on boiler plant explosion

  • For almost 100 years, a vital heat source for about 50 buildings in the Parliamentary Precinct and the downtown core, from Parliament Hill to the Mint. 
  • On the shore of the Ottawa River, on the west side of the Supreme Court of Canada.
  • Court documents show, on Oct. 19, 2009, plant was undergoing maintenance. 
  • Peter Kennedy was the shift supervisor that day and one of the five steam boilers shut off unexpectedly
  • around noon.
  • Kennedy pushed the button to restart the boiler and there was an explosion. 
  • Kennedy suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body. Two others were also burned.
  • In November 2012, Public Works pleaded guilty to three of the eight charges Labour Canada had laid the year after the explosion.
  • The violations were failing to provide necessary health and safety training for the operation of a boiler, failing to adequately train supervisors and managers in health and safety issues and failing to develop a program for the prevention of workplace hazards.