Fatality inquiry into death of Chinese worker at CNRL site slammed by labour group

The Alberta Federation of Labour says it's disappointed by an oilsands company's attempts to limit a fatality inquiry into the 2007 death of a Chinese temporary foreign worker.

‘People should look at this inquiry and be angry’

Genboa Ge and Hongliang Liu died when the 127-metric-ton roof collapsed, raining steel beams on workers below. (Alberta Occupational Health and Safety)

The Alberta Federation of Labour says it's disappointed by an oilsands company's attempts to limit a fatality inquiry into the 2007 death of a Chinese temporary foreign worker.

Two temporary foreign workers, Genbao Ge and Hongliang Lui, were killed and four others injured when a storage tank roof collapsed on them at a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. site near Fort McMurray. 

But the inquiry into the tragedy, which begins Friday in Fort McMurray, will focus only on whether an air ambulance should have been dispatched to transport Ge to the hospital.

Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, accuses CNRL of trying to derail the inquiry and with it the broader concerns for workplace safety in Alberta's oil patch.

"People should look at this inquiry and be angry," McGowan said Wednesday. "Several successive Conservative governments had an opportunity to use this accident to learn some important lessons about how we keep workers safe in Canada — and we missed out on those opportunities."
Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan says a fatality inquiry is needed in tank collapse. (CBC News)

The decision to limit the inquiry to the hospital trip came after CNRL argued there was no need for an independent comprehensive inquiry into the deaths of the workers.

"Here we are nine years later and the only issue that is going to be addressed by the inquiry is whether the ground transportation from the work site to the hospital was adequate," McGowan said. "I mean that's absurd."

CNRL declined to comment about Friday's inquiry.

More accountability needed

In June 2009, Occupational Health and Safety laid 53 charges against CNRL and the contractors that employed the labourers.

All 29 charges laid against CNRL were stayed or postponed. The 21 charges against Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Ltd. were withdrawn.

Two workers died and five others were injured when an oil storage tank which was under construction, collapsed. (CBC News)

The three remaining charges were laid against SSEC Canada, a subsidiary of the Chinese-owned Sinopec. The company pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the health and safety of a worker and paid $200,000 in fines and $1.3 million to the Alberta Law Foundation.

MLA and Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann said it's troubling that it has taken 10 years to hold the fatality inquiry.

"Our justice system has failed in this case," he said Thursday. "People in Alberta who followed this for 10 years should be concerned and should be calling for more accountability of CNRL in this." 

In January 2017 Alberta's professional engineering society fined CNRL the $10,000 maximum after it found the company engaged in unprofessional conduct. 

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta said CNRL failed to make sure building plans were certified by an engineer and that its contractor was competent to do the work.

AHS will testify

In an email, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said AHS was not responsible for emergency medical services in the Wood Buffalo region at the time of the incident.

However, Williamson confirmed one EMS staff member will be called as a witness to elaborate on the current programs and the changes made to medical first-responder agreements with oilsands sites.

Williamson said AHS will carefully examine any recommendations the inquiry releases.

'Dying with a whimper'

With no trial to shine a light on what went wrong and the limited inquiry, McGowan said the workers' deaths were a missed opportunity to fix a system that may be broken.
Investigators took this picture of a second storage tank before it also collapsed. (Alberta Occupational Health and Safety)

McGowan said a complete fatality inquiry could lead to charges being laid sooner after workplace accidents.

He also said the inquiry could lead to better safety protocols in workplaces where contractors are involved and better protection for temporary foreign workers.

"This whole issue is dying with a whimper," McGowan said. "This tiny sliver of an issue is being dealt with. People should see that tiny little sliver for what it is." 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter and via email.