Construction association defends firms building LRT amid safety complaints

The president of the Ottawa Construction Association is defending the companies building Ottawa's light rail transit after a CBC News story revealed workers have filed dozens of complaints about reportedly dangerous conditions.

Zero incidents on a job site is 'a fantasy,' says OCA president

John DeVries, president and general manager of the Ottawa Construction Association, wants to reassure the public that the firms building the city's light rail network have 'the highest safety management in place' and that there's 'excellent government oversight' of the project. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

The president of the Ottawa Construction Association is defending the companies building Ottawa's light rail network after a CBC News story revealed workers have filed dozens of complaints about reportedly dangerous conditions. 

John DeVries said he has minimal knowledge or insight into the project's safety records — but he does know that "world-class firms" with top safety protocols and management systems are working on the project and "doing their best."

We have incidents throughout the whole industry. We're never going to get to zero. That's a fantasy.- John DeVries, Ottawa Construction Association

The comments come after documents obtained by CBC News showed that Ontario's Ministry of Labour has received 56 complaints about alleged injuries and reportedly dangerous working conditions on the project's construction sites.

The complaints include allegations of a dozen injuries, including electric shock and carbon monoxide exposure. One worker was reportedly knocked unconscious after being struck in the head with a hose. Another expressed concern to the ministry that "this construction project has the imminent potential for workers to be fatally injured."

Up to 1,200 people work on the LRT project each day, many inside tunnels.

DeVries said while the industry always strives for zero incidents, construction work has inherent risks.

"This is the largest job in Ottawa's history. There's going to be incidents," he said. "We have incidents throughout the whole industry. We're never going to get to zero. That's a fantasy. Stuff's going to happen — either human error or management error." 

'It's a high-risk job'

DeVries's association represents firms active on the project, including EllisDon and the companies doing the shotcrete and excavation work.

He took a tour of the LRT tunnel last year and said the project is more complex than the average construction job.

"This is a challening job and it has ugly conditions to be blunt'- John DeVries, President & GM, Ottawa Construction Association

"It is a high-risk job because it's more mining than construction," he said. "It's not your typical condo project going up or your museum being built, where it's open air and green field."

Devries called the LRT project a "challenging job" and said workers are facing "ugly conditions."

"There are hundreds of workers involved. There's millions of man hours involved, working in basically a mine shaft with mud. [It's a] tightly confined area, it's going to be not everyone's cup of tea, and there's going to be a lot of issues to deal with."

There have been a dozen injuries reported to the Ministry of Labour since construction started. Three were classified as critical — including one worker who was knocked unconscious after a rubber hose struck them in the head. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Crane toppling over, human error

DeVries worries that incidents that involved a single worker making a mistake can tarnish the entire project's reputation.

He pointed to the April 26 incident in which a crane toppled over at an LRT site near the University of Ottawa. Tracks designed to prevent the crane from tipping were not deployed, leading to an imbalance that caused the heavy machine to fall, officials said at the time.

"That was a single operator incident," said DeVries. "He just had a brain cramp that day, and that crane toppled over and scared a heck of a lot of people."

"Luckily nothing happened that day, but it just shows you how one person can have a tremendous impact on an overall job. Sometimes I think that's a little unfair to the whole corporation."
The boom of the crane fell within arm's reach of the stairs workers use to enter and exit the tunnel on April 26. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

DeVries said he's comforted by the fact the Ministry of Labour has been keeping a close eye on the project.

According to the ministry, its safety inspectors have visited the LRT site on more than 400 occasions. Most were proactive visits such as consultations and continuing investigations.

Safety inspectors have also issued more than 500 work orders requiring the project come into compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act since construction began in 2014.

City council was informed last week that the ministry had charged several companies buidling the LRT with violations of that act. If convicted on all charges, the penalty is up to $4 million in fines. 

'Enough is enough'

Canadian Labour Congress executive vice-president Larry Rousseau said Mayor Jim Watson and the companies building the LRT have a joint responsibility to take workers' complaints seriously.

Rousseau also called for better safety training to be put in place.

"The mayor has to take a look at this and say enough is enough," said Rousseau. "The number one priority above all else is the health and safety of those workers."

"I think that both the contractor as well as the city should take a closer look at what's going on to make sure these complaints and incidents stop. One incident is one incident too much," he added.

CBC News was told Watson cannot comment on the issue because Ministry of Labour charges are before the courts. 

Rideau Transit Group, the management company in charge of the LRT's construction, said earlier this week that it takes every safety incident seriously and works to solve problems and make improvements to its work sites if necessary.


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against senior military leaders. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: or