5 years after boiler plant worker death, is Public Works safer?

The trial following the death of Peter Kennedy in a 2009 boiler plant explosion did little to satisfy those who wanted answers about what happened that day and how the plant could be made safer.

$300K fine and short sentencing hearing this week left questions unanswered

Peter Kennedy, 51, died after an explosion at the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant on Oct. 19, 2009. (CBC)
When your father or husband goes to work in the morning, there's not usually a thought he might not make it home again.

Peter Kennedy didn’t work in a dangerous, underground mine or in an overseas military operation.

He worked as a shift supervisor at the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant that services some 50 downtown Ottawa buildings including Parliamentary Hill.

That doesn’t mean the environment at the Cliff Plant holds no risks, but Canada is a first world country with first world health and safety laws, protections for workers and multiple layers of compliance and regulation, and after all, this was a government-run facility.

Unfortunately, on Oct. 19, 2009 Peter Kennedy did go to work, but did not make it home. His body was so badly burned when a steam boiler burst that his body gave up early the next morning. This week, an Ottawa court learned how the federal government — Kennedy’s employer — let down workers at that plant.

The big question for many people is 'It really going to prevent any future accidents?'- human rights lawyer Paul Champ

Public Works and Government Services Canada pleaded guilty to violating this country’s health and safety laws. The list of broken rules and non-compliance is a long one. The court heard that workers were not given the necessary training and supervision in:

  • Operation of the new boiler system.
  • Gas line maintenance.
  • Standard Operating Procedures.
  • Emergency procedures.
  • Occupational health and safety that detailed hazards prevention in the workplace.          

The court was told that in the days leading up to the explosion, the plant was understaffed. Workers complained about a lack of training and faulty or under-functioning alarm systems, but nothing was done.

The federal government has spent more than $76 million to upgrade and restore the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant since the explosion. (Rebecca Zandbergen/CBC)
When it came to compliance, an investigator with Ontario’s Technical Standards and Safety Authority found that the Public Works boilers didn’t meet provincial safety standards.

But the trial, which wrapped up this week with Public Works being fined $300,000 for three health and safety violations, did little to answer the questions of what happened that day and how the plant could be made safer in the future, according to Paul Champ, a human rights lawyer in Ottawa.

“Given the serious safety issues that were discovered by a health and safety officer, it’s really unfortunate it had to take five years…And the big question for many people is 'It really going to prevent any future accidents?'” said Champ.

Safety officer disciplined for speaking out

Last year, the federal health and safety officer who investigated the 2009 boiler explosion called the lax health and safety conditions at Public Works “systemic."

“It’s very scary to me to think that this is a very large employer with a huge budget with many resources in health and safety and I’m thinking if this is what’s going on here, what’s going on in the rest of the country?” said federal health and safety officer, Bruce McKeigan in a 2013 interview.

At the time, McKeigan said he was speaking to CBC because he’d “seen one too many dead body over 40 years…and if I can do one small part to raise the awareness of health and safety and the problems going on out there.”

CBC news has learned that McKeigan was disciplined for speaking to the media. He’s currently on sick leave after cancer treatment, but when he returns he’ll be docked five days pay for voicing his concerns. McKeigan’s union is grieving that disciplinary action.

Cliff plant still understaffed, workers say

Fears of reprisals and discipline has meant no other federal workers inside the plant or inspection authorities have spoken out — not to the media — not even to the court by way of victim impact statements.

Off-the-record, workers tell CBC the Cliff plant is still understaffed and they are still unsure as to what exactly caused the explosion, so they’re still worried it could happen again.

For years, the department refused to comment on the explosion and the subsequent charges, citing the pending court decision. Now that the sentencing is complete, the department still refuses to grant an interview.

Instead, it passed on the following statement: “We have expressed our deepest condolences to the family of Mr Peter Kennedy. The Department accepts the court’s decision.”

Impact of trial questioned

In the end, the department was forced to pay the maximum fine — $300,000. But this money is simply transferred from one government department to another. No managers or workers were charged, fined or punished.

The Public Works department has now spent more than $76 million to upgrade and restore the boiler plant. The department’s lawyers say it is committed to spending another $100,000 to now launch a training program.

Champ and others believe there may have been greater accountability if individuals had been named or charged. One worker told CBC the big problem that remains at Public Works is the culture and a drive for efficiency at the management level that doesn't always account for health and safety concerns.

“I think a lot of the coworkers of the man who died and likely his family, unfortunately didn’t get those questions answered, which might have happened in an open trial,” said Paul Champ.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at