Safety rules flouted on construction sites: critics

Housing construction workers routinely ignore provincial safety rules, taking risks that could lead to serious injury or death, a CBC News investigation has found.
Construction foreman Paul Marques became a self-proclaimed safety fanatic after he fell nearly seven metres. (CBC)

Housing construction workers routinely ignore provincial safety rules, taking risks that could lead to serious injury or death, a CBC News investigation has found.

"It’s not uncommon to go into one small neighbourhood [under construction] and see several violations at the same time, very shortly," said Mike Claussen, a safety consultant with Pragmatic Solutions. "And you can see it virtually everywhere you go."

Every year, hundreds of workers are injured or killed in Alberta’s booming housing construction industry, which directly or indirectly employs more than 100,000 people. Provincial safety inspectors now conduct inspections based mostly on complaints.

More random inspections sought

But labour groups and independent safety consultants are calling on the province to implement a more rigorous system of random inspections. They believe workers, and their employers, are flouting safety laws because they have no fear of being caught.

Minister reacts

CBC News showed video of construction workers working without safety harnesses to Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.

Lukaszuk appeared concerned about what he saw but said it doesn't matter how many inspectors he puts in the field — workers must look out for their own safety.

"At the end of the day, he should be more fearful of falling than of getting a ticket or a fine, or having a stop work order," he said.

The province is planning an inspection blitz of Alberta construction sites within the next couple of weeks, Lukaszuk said.

According to Alberta’s Workers Compensation Board, falls from heights are a leading cause of injury and death. Over two days, safety consultant Claussen and CBC News toured several housing construction sites in Edmonton and witnessed numerous workers without any fall protection. By provincial safety law, a harness and safety line are required for anyone working more than 2.75 metres above the ground.

In a new subdivision in southwest Edmonton, a roofer walked to the edge of a steep-pitched roof nearly eight metres above the ground. He then bent over double to nail some shingles. He was wearing a harness but it was not tied to a safety line.

"Anywhere he falls from there, if he doesn’t die, it’s going to be a life-altering injury," Claussen said.

On the other side of the same house, a window installer perched on a makeshift platform held two storeys aloft by a forklift. The installer had no safety harness.

"He is working in a very dangerous situation," Claussen said, adding that if the installer fell, he would have no one to help him since he was working alone.

"In 20 minutes, you’re seeing violations of several types just looking at one house," he said.

Injured worker

Paul Marques learned the hard way that safety harnesses are critical to safety.

"You do something a thousand times and you lose track of safety," Marques said. "I was loading up a forklift, turned to my left and walked right off the edge of the building."

Marques fell about seven metres onto a concrete floor, crushing both his arms.

"I have got metal plates, screws, pins in both arms," he said. "And the pain never goes away."

After several surgeries and three years of rehabilitation, Marques, 34, is back at work as a construction foreman. A self-described safety fanatic, Marques has joined the growing chorus of labour groups and safety consultants calling on the Alberta government to increase its random inspections.

"They need to just go to a site and see what’s going on out there," he said. "You will never see harnesses on [workers] because time is money to them.

"The government needs to go in and see what the heck is going on, but they’re not doing it."

A spokeswoman for Employment Alberta, which regulates occupational health and safety, says the ministry is planning a random inspection blitz of housing construction sites. But she did not know when.