Ottawa police launch criminal probe into workplace death of Olivier Bruneau
'I can't imagine that you send people down that hole to work in this kind of condition'
Ottawa police have launched a criminal investigation into the workplace death of Olivier Bruneau nearly three months after the young construction worker was killed by falling ice in a deep pit in Little Italy, CBC News has learned.
A joint CBC/Radio-Canada investigation also reveals there were two similar incidents at the construction site of the Claridge Icon condominium tower on Preston Street weeks before Bruneau's death.
One of those incidents wasn't reported until after Bruneau was killed.
On Wednesday the Ottawa and District Labour Council issued a statement thanking Ottawa police and Chief Charles Bordeleau for launching the investigation, calling it the first time the force has investigated a workplace fatality since 2004 when amendments were made to the Criminal Code following the Westray Mine disaster.
On the day Bruneau died, footage showed ice stretching more than halfway down the 30-metre-deep pit.
In an exclusive interview, Bruneau's parents said they want more than just fines issued: they want criminal charges laid.
Bruneau died on March 23 at the site of a massive construction pit at the corner of Preston Street and Carling Avenue. A slab of ice broke off the walls and struck him as he worked at the bottom of the nine-storey hole.
At the time, paramedic supervisor Darryl Wilton, who responded to the scene, estimated the chunks of ice that fell each weighed between 22 and 45 kilograms.
Ice crushed Bruneau's ribs, punctured lungs
Bruneau's parents said the impact of the ice crushed their son's ribs and punctured his lungs. The family lost a son, a brother and a bright future together. Bruneau was planning to start a family with his common-law partner.
"We don't have Olivier and Katia and their plans for life where they wanted to have kids. Four kids. We won't have these grandchildren," said Bruneau's father, Christian.
Eerily, two months before his death, Bruneau, a surveyor tasked with measuring the foundations of the pit, took a photo of the ice wall with his cellphone. His family saw it for the first time after his death.
"I got the impression that it was photos taken from a construction site in Siberia," said Christian Bruneau. "I can't imagine that you send people down that hole to work in this kind of condition."
Son expressed concern over ice, father says
Bruneau said his son had often expressed concern to him about working at the site, and was especially worried about the ice.
"He would say, 'Dad, the ice is very sketchy,' and continuously he would say that."
The construction site belongs to developer Claridge Homes, which had hired Bellai Construction to help build the tallest condominium tower in Ottawa. Bruneau was employed by Bellai. Both companies declined requests for interview.
He would say, 'Dad, the ice is very sketchy,' and continuously he would say that.- Christian Bruneau
CBC News has learned more details about two previous incidents involving falling debris that occurred before Bruneau died.
The first occurred in December 2015, but wasn't reported to the Ministry of Labour until after Bruneau's death. Over the Christmas holidays, the glass cab enclosure of a high-angle excavator was damaged by falling debris, but because the work site was closed for the holidays it was never determined whether it was rock or ice that fell.
The second incident occurred on Feb. 4, 2016, when a piece of ice fell on a worker, but the employee escaped serious injury. Following that incident, Claridge restricted access to areas deemed to be at risk of falling ice and said it would erect fencing.
Although a provincial inspector was called to the scene, a Ministry of Labour spokesperson said the inspector didn't issue an order to remove ice from the walls because the developer had already taken action.
On March 23, just hours after Olivier Bruneau's death, a Ministry of Labour inspector shut down the site and ordered the stripping of loose rock and ice as required under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.
'Why do we have to wait for somebody to die?'
Bruneau's father said the previous incidents should have served as a warning, and questions the inspector's lack of action after the February incident.
"Somebody dies so we have to remove the ice and we have to remove the rock and we have to remove everything. We have to make everything safe. Why do we have to wait for somebody to die before you take appropriate measures to remove the risk?" demanded Christian Bruneau.
Ministry of Labour officials also declined to be interviewed, but said the department was continuing to investigate the workplace death.
City inspectors also visited site
Catherine McKenney, the city councillor for the area, said city inspectors visited the Claridge Icon site six times and did not find any building code violations.
Claridge Homes and Bellai Construction have complied with the ministry's initial orders, and the stop work order has now been lifted.
If found in breach of the Health and Safety Act, the companies could be fined $500,000 each.
Removing ice costly
Without commenting specifically on job conditions at the Icon site, construction experts told CBC News companies are for the most part aware that ice and debris should be removed from work sites, but acknowledge it can be costly.
"You have to act as a good father, a bon père de famille," said Gaetan Lacroix, who has worked in construction for 25 years. "So you have to take all the measures as a supervisor to ensure no accident happens to your employees."
You have to take all the measures as a supervisor to ensure no accident happens to your employees.- Gaetan Lacroix
Lacroix is a civil engineering technologist and a professor at La Cité collégiale. Bruneau was one of his students.
Lacroix said ice can be removed using an excavator shovel or by using a crane to lift a worker with a steam saw to melt the ice.
A photo taken Feb. 19 does show a worker using a steam cutter to melt ice on the west wall of the pit, however a second photo taken a few hours later shows massive ice buildup on the east wall.
Ice buildup can also be prevented by drilling holes into the walls of the trench and injecting cement to fill cracks where water flows.
But the work can be expensive: up to "$1,000 each day, maybe more depending on the amount of work and the location of the ice to be removed," said Lacroix.
Lacroix emphasized that workers have the right to refuse work they consider unsafe.
Police launch parallel investigation
While the Ministry of Labour is looking into potential breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Ottawa police have opened a parallel investigation looking for evidence of possible criminal negligence.
Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau confirmed the probe in an email to CBC.
But in Canada, charges of criminal negligence are rarely brought against businesses. That's despite the passage of Bill C-45 in 2004, which allows for the prosecution of organizations and corporations in workplace deaths.
The bill was in response to the 1992 Westray Mine disaster in Nova Scotia, in which 26 miners were killed in an explosion.
According to accumulated workers compensation data, more than 900 Canadians die each year in workplace accidents. About a quarter of those deaths occur on construction sites.
Criminal charges rare
Despite those numbers, lawyer Norm Keith, author of Workplace Health and Safety Crimes, has identified only a dozen cases where charges have been brought against companies or their leaders since 2004.
Jennifer Quaid, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, calls the number of criminal prosecutions "disappointing" and points to both the complexity of the cases and a lack of political will to go after companies that are economic generators for their community.
"We need to recognize that businesses work in a pretty cut-throat world … It would be naive to think that status and power don't have some role in how cases are chosen."
Quaid said police and prosecutors may also be hesitant to wage a long legal battle against a company with deep pockets.
"I suspect it's less about the state worrying about interfering with economic power, and much more the enforcement institutions that just don't feel confident ... going after a corporate defendant who is well-resourced."
In a statement Wednesday, Ottawa District and Labour Council president Sean McKenny said Bruneau's death was preventable.
"Our hope is if criminal liability is found on the part of a corporation, their directors and executives, the full extent of the law, including jail time, is applied... Perhaps then our message that workers be provided a [healthy and safe] workplace and an opportunity to return home to their families at the end of the day will be taken seriously."
- A previous version of this story stated that ice fell in an incident on Feb. 5, 2016. In fact, the incident happened Feb. 4, and a Ministry of Labour report was filed Feb. 5.May 28, 2018 12:19 PM ET