Manager in fatal scaffolding collapse sentenced to 3½ years
4 men died after falling 13 storeys while working at a Toronto highrise on Christmas Eve 2009.
Construction project manager Vadim Kazenelson has been sentenced to 3½ years in prison for his role in a scaffolding collapse at a Toronto apartment building that left four workers dead on Christmas Eve 2009.
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The Ontario Superior Court found Kazenelson, 40, guilty in June 2015 of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
During sentencing on Monday, Judge Ian MacDonnell said he needed to impose a "significant term" on Kazenelson to make it clear to others that they have a "serious obligation" to ensure the safety of workers.
He said Kazenelson was aware that five of his workers were not wearing safety harnesses, but still allowed them to board a swing stage 13 storeys high. It collapsed, causing the men to plummet to the ground.
Kazenelson is appealing his conviction and was released on bail Monday, pending that appeal.
MacDonnell said Kazenelson "decided it was in the company's interest" to allow men to work in "manifestly dangerous conditions."
The judge said Kazenelson decided the interests of the company outweighed the risks to the workers' safety in allowing them to work 30 metres above the ground without safety harnesses.
Court heard the work repairing balconies was behind schedule as Christmas Eve approached and that the company, Metron Construction Inc., would get a $50,000 bonus by finishing the project by Dec. 31.
"A worker's acceptance of dangerous work is not always a voluntary choice," said MacDonnell. The four workers who died when the swing stage collapsed — Aleksey Blumberg, 32, Alexander Bondorev, 25, Fayzullo Fazilov, 31, and Vladimir Korostin, 40 — were all recent immigrants from eastern Europe.
Families have been destroyed here. This is not just about profits any longer.– Ontario Federation of Labour president Chris Buckley
Another man, Dilshod Marupov, was seriously injured, suffering a fractured spine and ribs, in the fall outside the highrise apartment building on Kipling Avenue, just south of Steeles Avenue West.
Kazenelson managed to hold onto a 13th-floor balcony when the swing stage split in two, the court was told at his trial in June. He had been handing tools to the men earlier that day, according to testimony.
It's the first time in Ontario that someone has been sentenced to a prison term under the "Westray Law," a 2004 change to the Criminal Code that makes employers criminally liable for workplace safety lapses. The Crown was seeking a sentence of four or five years in prison; the defence was suggesting a one- or two-year prison sentence. Imprisonment on each count is to be served concurrently.
Sentence sends strong message
"I hope this certainly opens up the eyes of every employer out there to protect every worker's health and safety," said Sylvia Boyce, health and safety co-ordinator with the United Steelworkers' national office. "I think it's important that there is jail time for those that are criminally negligent."
The case shows the need for law enforcement agencies to probe worker deaths "through a criminal lens," Boyce told reporters outside the courtroom. "Every other death in society, they investigate to see whether criminal charges should be laid," she said. "Workers' deaths should be treated in the same manner."
Ontario Federation of Labour president Chris Buckley praised the judge's ruling, which he said sends a strong message to any employer who tries to save money by skirting workplace safety rules.
"Every employer should have shivers up their spines today," Buckley told reporters outside the courtroom. "Bosses cannot expect that it's all about money. Families have been destroyed here. This is not just about profits any longer. This is about health and safety of workers."
Metron's president, Joel Swartz, was also initially charged in the case, but the Crown dropped those charges in July 2012, saying it couldn't secure a conviction.
The families of the victims were not in court for the sentencing. "They've made the decision to not attend and to move on with their lives," Crown prosecutor Rochelle Direnfeld told reporters outside the courthouse.
"The toll on the families … has been huge," said the lead Toronto police investigator in the case, Det. Kevin Sedore.
Kazenelson's mother was in the courtroom and wiped away tears after the sentence was pronounced.
His bail conditions will allow him to work while waiting for the appeal to be heard, which his lawyers say they expect could take a year.
"We respectfully believe that the trial judge Justice MacDonnell made errors," defence lawyer Lou Strezos told reporters outside the courthouse. "We feel that he misapprehended evidence and failed to consider evidence that pointed in a different direction."
Numerous safety violations emerged as the case made its way through the courts. Only one man of the six on the scaffolding was wearing a harness secured to a lifeline — and he was the only one to survive.
Kazenelson allowed the six men to keep working on the platform at the time, although there were only lifelines available for two people.
Court documents also showed that three of the four men who died had marijuana in their systems before going up to repair the balconies. One of the three was also a supervisor.