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Alberta hits employers with heaviest fines in the country when someone dies on the job

Alberta employers are being hit with the heaviest fines for violating occupational health and safety laws in connection with a workplace fatality, a CBC investigation has found.

While fatality-related fines top all provinces, they are infrequently handed out, records show

Occupational Health and Safety investigators work at the scene of a trench collapse in Edmonton on April 28, 2015. Labourer Frederick Tomyn was buried in the 4.2-metre-deep trench after it collapsed on top of him. (CBC )

Alberta employers are being hit with the heaviest fines for violating occupational health and safety laws in connection with workplace fatalities, a CBC investigation has found.

CBC News analyzed 36 workplace fatalities in Alberta — going back to 2009 — in which an employer was convicted of a workplace safety violation in connection with a death. The median total fine — including all court-imposed payments for all parties — was $275,000.

That's nearly three times as high as the median fine of $97,500 for the country as a whole, CBC News found when it drew from a sample of more than 250 cases from across Canada spanning several years and found that fines varied widely across jurisdictions. Someone did time behind bars in only a handful of cases nationally.

The Alberta figure doesn't include a recent penalty of nearly $500,000 given to Edmonton's Sahib Contracting Inc. after Fred Tomyn, a labourer who was working to connect a new sewer line to a home and was killed when a trench collapsed in 2015.

The jobsite supervisor — Sukhwinder Singh Nagra — was sentenced to four months in jail after pleading guilty to failing to take reasonable care to protect Tomyn's health and safety. 

The company had earlier pleaded guilty to a charge under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of failing to take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of another worker.

It's the first time anyone has received a jail sentence for violating the Occupational Health and Safety code in Alberta, according to Alberta Labour.  

Employer fined in death of young worker

Earlier in 2017, Calgary-based Arjon Construction was fined $250,000 after pleading guilty to an OHS violation in connection with the death of a 15-year-old worker.

Christopher Lawrence, 15, was pulled into a conveyor belt and killed at a gravel crushing site near Drumheller in July 2014. He's the youngest Albertan to die on the job since 2000. (Doreen Mardian )

Christopher Lawrence is the youngest worker to be killed on the job in Alberta since 2000.

Lawrence was four weeks into his summer job when he was pulled into a gravel-crushing conveyor belt near Drumheller in July 2014.

An agreed statement of facts entered as an exhibit in provincial court says Lawrence was attempting to clear a buildup of gravel under the conveyor belt when his safety vest became entangled in the machinery. He was immediately pulled into the rotating belt and killed.

The company pleaded guilty to failing to provide adequate safeguards to prevent workers from coming into contact with moving parts of machinery — a charge under the Occupational Health and Safety code.

According to the agreed statement of facts, Arjon was operating the gravel-crushing machine without a barrier guard on the lower conveyor belt. Warnings on the machine state that all guards must be replaced before operation.

"Subsequent to the incident, Arjon installed guards at the tail-pulley portion where Mr. Lawrence was killed," read the statement.

This photo, part of a court exhibit, shows the safety vest that was pulled into the conveyor belt system of a gravel crushing machine when Christopher Lawrence died. (Court Exhibit )

Lawrence was wearing safety glasses, a hard hat, hearing protection and a safety vest, but not a tear-away vest — something he was advised to do by a safety officer and another co-worker, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Arjon was also placed on corporate probation for two years. A significant portion of the fine — $200,000 — will be used to develop industry best practices, safety courses and a youth campaign.   

The charge carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail for the first offence.

The company didn't respond to requests for an interview or a statement.

The agreed statement of facts said Arjon had been cooperative with Occupational Health and Safety investigators throughout the investigation of Lawrence's death.

'Christopher is always in our daily thoughts'

Doreen Mardian's face lights up when she talks about her grandson, who was just a few days shy of his 16th birthday when he was killed.

"Christopher was a very smart young fella, he loved the outdoors…. He was very, very loving to his family," said Mardian. She says she misses her grandson very much.

Doreen Mardian believes the fine given to Arjon Construction Ltd. was appropriate in connection with the death of her grandson, Christopher Lawrence. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

Mardian says she doesn't know why he wasn't wearing a tear-away vest.

"Whether he chose to wear it or not, we don't know," said Mardian.

Mardian says the fine was appropriate: she believes the company's remorse was genuine.

"The company itself was very devastated, remorse was shown, like it was upsetting on both parties," said Mardian.

Tougher rules coming

Alberta's NDP government is set to change the province's employment standards to prevent 15-year-olds from doing work that is considered hazardous under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  

The changes take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

The changes are not a response to any specific incident but are meant to protect younger workers, who are more "frequently involved in job-related mishaps than older workers," said Alberta Labour spokesperson Trent Bancarz.  

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to carry out that work — but only if it's authorized by provincial permit.

Those workers must also be adequately trained and supervised while the work is being performed.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mardian doesn't support those changes. She doesn't feel kids should be restricted from that type of work.

Prosecutions 'few and far between'

The vast majority of workplace fatalities don't lead to convictions under OHS. 

Data from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada show there were 468 acute workplace fatalities in Alberta from 2010 to 2015.

In that same period, there were 30 convictions under the province's Occupational Health and Safety act for fatality-related incidents, according to Alberta Labour records.  

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan says while Alberta may hand out the heaviest fines in connection with workplace fatalities, he says convictions are 'few and far between.' (CBC News)

"It's not a particularly flattering story for Alberta," said Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

McGowan says Alberta can be a dangerous place to work.

"People are more likely to face injury or even death, and when those things happen, unfortunately, the history here in Alberta is that the government hasn't stepped up to enforce the rules and hold employers to account for putting their workers in harm's way," said McGowan.

"The prosecutions and fines that flow from them [workplace injuries and fatalities] are few and far between," he said.

"While the fines may be heavy, they're hardly ever levied," he added.

And criminal convictions are virtually non-existent.

Criminal prosecutions of employers or organizations are allowed in the most extreme cases of negligence where an employee is hurt or killed on the job. 

There can be a criminal conviction if a company did not take reasonable steps to protect an employee.

Calgary police have new protocol for workplace injuries, fatalities

Calgary police are changing their approach to how they investigate serious workplace injuries and fatalities.

Patrol officers and detectives are working under a new protocol this year that could help determine whether a supervisor, employer or someone else on the jobsite should be charged under the Criminal Code.  

The new procedure is called the Krsek Protocol, named after a three-year-old girl who was hit by falling debris from a downtown construction site and killed in front of her family in 2009.

Officers will work alongside Occupational Health and Safety investigators to determine early on whether the incident potentially involves criminal negligence.

If it does, officers will be able to properly gather and preserve evidence.

A detective from the general investigation unit will also be dispatched to the scene.

Police want to know within minutes or hours of the incident whether there is any suspicion of criminal negligence — something that can be harder to prove under the Criminal Code of Canada, compared to the Occupational Health and Safety Code.

Calgary Police Service Supt. Cliff O'Brien says officers and detectives will attend to calls involving serious workplace injuries and fatalities under a new protocol to help determine whether someone on the jobsite should be charged under the Criminal Code. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"We don't want to have to go back and try to re-create a scene," said Cliff O'Brien, a superintendent with the Calgary Police Service.  

"I think if you're a family member and you have lost a loved one… you want answers and you certainly want to know if someone is responsible… and someone is held accountable for that," said O'Brien.

Calgary police leading the country with new protocol: expert

An expert in occupational psychology says Calgary police are leading the country with the new protocol — and he hopes to see criminal charges laid against employers who don't take reasonable steps to protect their employees.

"This isn't about putting people in jail, this is about creating an environment where we're actually going to see performance improvement and motivating organizations to up their game," said Robert Stewart.

"As a Canadian, it's somewhat embarrassing where we rank in the world with our serious injury and fatality rates, and I know we can do much better."

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.