A worker dies on the job every 5 days in Quebec. Here's one family's story

In Quebec, where fines and regulations are lax, a worker dies in an accident on the job nearly once every five days. Here's the story of Fabien Guindon, who died a decade ago, leaving behind his wife and two kids.

Province has lowest fines in Canada for unsafe work places, CBC investigation finds

Fabien Guindon is seen here with his two young sons. He died in 2007. (Submitted by Kimberley Labrecque )

It's been a decade since the death of Kimberley Labrecque's husband, Fabien Guindon, but Labrecque remembers the day "like it was five minutes ago."

"I'll never forget it," said Labrecque. "It was the worst day of my life, having to tell my children, who were four and six at the time, that their dad died."

Guindon, 38, a blue collar worker for the town of Oka, was buried alive while digging a ditch.

In Quebec, a worker dies in an accident on the job about nearly once every five days, statistics show.

A CBC News comparison of provincial occupational health and safety legislation has found that Quebec has the lowest maximum allowable fines in Canada for employers who violate workplace safety laws.

Although those fines were updated in 2009, the legislation governing Quebec's health and safety regime, by the provincial Labour Ministry's own admission, is decades out of date.

'All they could see was his hand'

Labrecque remembers getting the call letting her know her husband had been in an accident and rushing to the hospital. The first thing she spotted was an ambulance gurney covered in mud.

"It felt like a punch in the stomach," she said. "I lost my breath and totally collapsed."

Fabien Guindon was killed a few months after this photo was taken with his sons, then aged six and four. Kimberley Labrecque pasted herself into the photo, far right. (Submitted by Kimberley Labrecque)

Guindon had been in the trench when it caved in.

The work had not been done to code: the angle of the walls was too steep, and the earth that had been removed had been piled up too close to the edge, its weight and the weight of the excavator causing the walls to collapse onto Guindon.

"All they could see was his hand," Labrecque said her husband's co-workers later told her. 

They heard his muffled cries for help. But it took 20 minutes to unearth him, and by then it was too late.

Oka flouted workplace safety rules

Quebec's workplace health and safety board, then known as the CSST, found the town of Oka deficient in its work methods and the application of its safety measures.

"The municipality applies a management style focused on production, flouting health and safety,"  read the CSST's report on Guindon's death. "It's an organization where no one takes responsibility for workplace health and safety when it comes to excavation work."

Kimberley Labrecque is still trying to cope with the death of her husband, Fabien Guindon. (CBC)

The CSST fined Oka $16,000 and sanctioned the crew's foreman, although the penalty levied against him was later withdrawn. At the time, the maximum penalty for a corporate entity such as Oka was $20,000.

Three years after Guindon's death, Quebec increased fines for workplace health and safety offences for the first time in 30 years, tripling them to $60,000 for a first offence. It also introduced a provision to allow for yearly increases, based on inflation.

"These measures have been needed for a long time, to bring in line delinquent employers who couldn't care less about the health and safety of their staff," reads a 2009 statement from Michel Arsenault, then president of the Quebec Federation of Labour.

Yet, as a disincentive to workplace safety violations, those fines are still a fraction of the penalties imposed in every other province and territory in Canada.

Fines elsewhere in Canada start at $250K

In 2017, the maximum fine for a first offence for a Quebec corporate entity such as a municipality is $66,183, climbing to $330,918 for a third and later offences.

Compare that to other provinces:

In British Columbia, the maximum fine for a first offence is $697,625, increasing to $1.4 million for a second offence.

In Alberta, a first offence nets a maximum fine of $500,000. That amount goes up to $1 million for subsequent offences.

In Manitoba and across the Atlantic provinces, the maximum fine for a first offence is $250,000, increasing to $500,000 in Manitoba and in Nova Scotia for second and subsequent offences.

Fining employers for workplace health and safety violations is meant to provide an incentive to prevent injuries, illness and fatalities on the job.

Katherine Lippel, Canada research chair in occupational health and safety at University of Ottawa, believes the threat of time behind bars could make a difference in the number of deaths and injuries on the job in Quebec.

"The theory is that deterrence is more effective when the sanctions are higher," said Katherine Lippel, Canada research chair in occupational health and safety at University of Ottawa.

Lippel said Quebec has chosen a different model: Instead of steep fines for safety violations, it charges employers premiums based on their worker compensation payouts — a practice known as "experience rating."

"For a large firm, for every dollar paid to the worker in worker's compensation, it can have a five-fold impact on the premiums of the employer in subsequent years," said Lippel.

"It's an economic insurance incentive to make sure the claims are as low as possible."

However, Lippel points out, that doesn't always translate into making a workplace safer.

She said Quebec's system tends to have another consequence: employers in the province are more litigious, contesting claims much more often than employers in other provinces do.

In any given year, Lippel says, the final appeal tribunal in Quebec hears about 31,000 claims -- about half of them from employers.

Compare that to about 5,000 heard annually by the final appeal tribunal in Ontario, of which fewer than three per cent of the appeals came from employers.

No threat of jail time

Quebec is also the only jurisdiction in Canada that does not include jail time for company directors found liable for workplace violations that result in injuries or death.

Lippel believes the threat of time behind bars could make a difference in the number of deaths and injuries on the job in Quebec.

She said the provision for up to 12 months in jail in Ontario does appear to translate into worker safety issues being taken more seriously in that province.

It took 20 minutes to unearth Fabien Guindon. By then it was too late. (submitted by Kimberley Labrecque)

In the past two years, Ontario has sentenced at least six individuals to jail time in relation to a workplace safety violation.

In the same time period, Nova Scotia has handed down two sentences, including a recent four-month term for a repeat offender.

Consensus 'difficult to achieve'

Quebec Labour Minister Dominique Vien did not agree to an interview on the subject.

However, the Labour Ministry issued a statement saying the workplace health and safety regime hasn't been updated for 35 years, and it recognizes the need to do so.

"Regulation in the areas of prevention and compensation, financing, paying damages, and governance are complex domains for which consensus is difficult to achieve," the ministry said.

In 2015, the Labour Ministry asked a committee made up of employers groups and unions to come up with a master plan to modernize the regime. The committee has not reached a consensus on about a quarter of its 51 recommendations.

The minister is now waiting for the Labour Ministry and the province's workplace health and safety board, now called the CNESST, to analyze the outstanding issues.

Kimberley LabrecqueFabien Guindon's widow, has spent the decade since her husband's death lobbying for stronger fines and penalties and raising awareness about workplace health and safety.

The town of Oka named a garage in Fabien Guindon's honour after his death. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

She believes the paltry fines and the fact that there is no threat of jail time for managers who don't ensure the safety of workers in Quebec are serious shortcomings.

"They just don't care," said Labrecque of Quebec legislators. "In my eyes, they have the tools: if they want to put jail time, they can ask for it. They can ask to raise the fines.  Everything is possible, but nothing is being done."

Lippel says she can understand why the families of workers killed on the job feel Quebec's workplace safety and health regime offers them so little solace.

"When the fine is $60,000, that's the maximum for the loss of a loved one, that's almost insulting to the victims," Lippel said. "They certainly don't understand how this can be justice, if the value of a life is so low."

"I promised my husband in his casket, that he wouldn't die for nothing," said Labrecque, who now tours the province, counselling others to be dead serious when it comes to workplace safety.

She believes she's making a difference.

"When you see these big husky, tattooed men, and they're crying," she said. "I think I got to them, [saying] that they have a family, and they should be careful. I'm glad that I was able to do that."