Toronto

10 years after Christmas Eve swing stage collapse killed 4, workers still not safe enough, expert says

A Toronto health and safety consultant says a lot has changed in the industry since 2009, from better training for workers to stiffer fines for employers, but she feels there's still a long way to go.

Province made changes, but safety expert wants to see a shift in work-site culture

Four workers died on Dec. 24, 2009 when a swing stage collapsed on a highrise building in Toronto's west end.. (CBC)

It's been 10 years since a Christmas Eve construction accident killed four migrant workers in Toronto, and while the tragedy pushed the province to make changes to workplace safety laws, experts are calling for a change in the culture on work sites.

Aleksey Blumberg, 32, Alexander Bondorev, 25, Fayzullo Fazilov, 31, and Vladimir Korostin, 40 — all recent immigrants from eastern Europe — were doing balcony repairs on a Toronto high-rise building when the swing-stage they were working on collapsed, plummeting some 30 metres to the ground.

Another worker was badly injured and a sixth, who was tethered as required under provincial law and by industry practice, was left dangling in mid-air but unhurt.

"It was a terrible day for us in construction and construction safety," said health and safety consultant Val Ratsch-Mazza, as she walked through a construction site at Lawrence and Avenue.

"No one should go to work to die."

A coroner's inquest to investigate the deaths was called last year but no date has been set. A criminal trial in Toronto in 2016 handed down a prison sentence to the site's project manager. 

Ratsch-Mazza says a lot has changed in the industry since then, from better training for workers to stiffer fines for employers, but she feels there's still a long way to go.

According to Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, 17 people died on construction sites in 2009. In 2018, there were 25 fatalities.

Val Ratsch-Mazza, a health and safety consultant, says the number one killer in construction is falls. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"There are a lot more construction workers, but even one death is too many," said Ratsch-Mazza, 41.

"We are hoping to keep reducing the numbers."

Changing the culture on construction sites

One of the biggest ways to do that, she feels, is by encouraging workers to speak up at work sites.

"As a woman in construction when first started, I was definitely scared," said Ratsch-Mazza, who has worked in the industry since 2002.

"There were times when I had 100 questions a day and was a little uneasy about going to the work area, but I did it anyway."

In addition to inspecting sites, and training workers, Ratsch-Mazza is working on her PhD. Her thesis focuses on changing the culture of construction sites.

She says workers, particularly anyone new to the job and under the age of 25, are four times more likely to get hurt.

Ratsch-Mazza visits with workers on the site of a new project near Lawrence Avenue East and Avenue Road. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Dilshod Marupov, who survived the 2009 accident but was left with serious injuries, told a Toronto court in 2015 that he had only been in Canada for three months when someone offered him the welding job. 

At the time, he was 21 and had never worked at such heights on swing-stage scaffolds, and was given a quick safety lesson that Christmas Eve morning.

"How to put on a harness and when we went to the stage, how to go up and how to go down, and how to connect the rope. Within 25 to 30 minutes, he gave me those instructions," Marupov said at the time. 

Uzbek refugee Dilshod Marupov, 22, stands in front of a Toronto apartment building in 2010 where he was almost killed in an industrial accident. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Rigorous training, increased fines

In an email to CBC Toronto, Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said while the province has one of the best safety records in the country, it has made "extensive changes to the regulations that govern the use of suspended access equipment." 

That includes more "rigorous manufacturing and maintenance practices" and improved working in heights training — now an all-day, six-hour course.

Fines for both workers and employers who violate the Occupational Health and Safety Act were also increased.

Metron Construction Corp., the company connected to the deadly scaffolding accident, was originally fined $200,000 in provincial court but later the Court of Appeal for Ontario boosted that to $750,000.

The project manager, Vadim Kazenelson — who managed to hold on to a balcony when the scaffolding gave way — was convicted of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one of causing bodily harm after a judge found he was aware that protections against falls were not in place.

Vadim Kazenelson was sentenced on Jan. 11, 2016 to three-and-a-half years in prison for criminal negligence causing death in connection to the 2009 deaths of four workers in a scaffolding collapse. (CBC)

Kazenelson was sentenced to three-and-a-half years behind bars and lost his appeal last year.

A spokesperson for the coroner's office said an inquest can only be scheduled once "all outstanding investigations, charges and appeals periods have concluded." 

The inquest is now in the early planning stages.

About the Author

Shannon Martin

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shannon is an award-winning reporter with CBC Toronto. She was part of the core team that launched "No Fixed Address", a hugely popular series on millenials renting and buying in Toronto. In 2016, Shannon hosted a special live broadcast on-air and on Facebook simultaneously from Toronto Pride, which won top honours in the Digital category at the RTDNA awards. Contact Shannon: shannon.martin@cbc.ca or find her on Instagram at @ShannonMartinTV.

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