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Thread: Workplace deaths 'a dark side of the boom'

  1. #1

    Default Workplace deaths 'a dark side of the boom'

    Workplace deaths 'a dark side of the boom'

    As Alberta's booming economy is luring job seekers by the thousands, scores are literally dying to work here. The province says its record is good; critics say more must be done to make job sites safer

    Kerry Williamson, Calgary Herald
    Published: Sunday, March 18, 2007

    As a young pilot, Tim Maguire used to stand on his porch, look up at the sky and watch the jets fly overhead.

    Today, he still looks skyward, but it's hardly the same.

    The 31-year-old father of three has to strain his head just to look up, his body paralyzed from the neck down and strapped into a powered wheelchair.

    Tim Maguire with his son, Ashton, and in the background his wife, Barbie, and daughter, Emily. Maguire was a newcomer to Alberta and an aspiring airline pilot when he took a construction job to tide his family over. A job-site accident left him a quadriplegic.

    And when he sees the jets, Maguire can't help but think of the life he lost and will never regain.

    "When I first came home from the hospital, I would still look up and watch the jets go over," he says. "And that was probably when I was the most ****** off -- looking up at the sky after I was hurt."

    The construction job was supposed to be quick and easy, something that would tide Maguire over until he signed on with a Calgary airline.

    After moving his young family to Calgary from Thunder Bay, Ont., he decided to seek work in Alberta's booming building industry until his flying job came through.

    So one day he walked up to a building site near his southeast Calgary home and asked for a job.

    He bought himself a hammer, a pouch, a square and a chalkline, and began working for $10 an hour.

    And five weeks later, he tripped and fell into an unfinished basement and snapped his spinal cord at the neck.

    Some call it an epidemic. Others describe it as the dark side of the boom, a side-effect of an economy in overdrive.

    Last year, 124 Albertans died on the job. In 2005, the province's workplace death toll hit 143 -- roughly eight in every 100,000 workers -- the most in almost a quarter-century. And that figure doesn't include the 20 people who died in farm-related accidents in 2005. Alberta and Nova Scotia are the only provinces in which health and safety legislation doesn't apply to farm workers.

    As of late February this year, six people had been killed on the job. They included:

    A well-test supervisor and 27-year-old father of three was struck in the abdomen by tools that had become stuck in a pressurized pipe. He died amidst suggestions the job was being rushed.

    A 35-year-old logger, killed when a log came through his cab and struck him in the head.

    A 31-year-old electrician, electrocuted when he touched live wires while relocating outlets and switches.

    A 47-year-old plant operator, run over by a tractor unit while helping a trucker hook up a trailer.

    Thousands more are getting hurt. In 2005, the latest year for which statistics are available, about 170,000 workers were injured in Alberta, many seriously enough to be forced out of work.

    It's perhaps no surprise, given the province's booming economy and acute labour shortage, that Alberta has one of the highest rates of workplace incidents, trailing only the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia.

    It's also no surprise given the province's reliance on industries with inherent risks, such as the oilpatch, agriculture and construction.

    The numbers, too, have been boosted by deaths linked to occupational diseases, particularly asbestosis, which now account for close to one-third of all work-related fatalities.

    Between 1993 and 2005, Alberta saw the second largest increase in workplace deaths of all 10 provinces.

    However, Iris Evans, the province's minister of employment, immigration and industry, says the fatality figures are inflated by deaths from occupational diseases, a category some provinces and countries don't include in their overall numbers.

    "Alberta workplaces are generally safe," says Evans, "and Alberta employers are generally doing the right thing and paying attention to safety standards.

    "When I look at national statistics, we rank fairly well."

    Premier Ed Stelmach noted the government has moved in recent years to make job sites safer.

    "Our major concern is to get the requisite number of people to fill the job opportunities there are in Alberta," Stelmach said recently. "Companies have a responsibility to ensure the people are well trained.

    "There are regulations in place and those regulations do protect workers."

    While both the provincial government and labour activists debate which figures should be used to measure the seriousness of the issue, few dispute that more people are dying.

    Many blame the economic boom, the Alberta government's faith in voluntary compliance and its focus on punishment rather than enforcement.

    Others say the high incidence rates have more to do with Alberta's culture. The one thing many Albertans pride themselves on -- a maverick, individualistic attitude -- may be killing us.

    "It still boils down to culture," says Dr. Louis Francescutti, a professor of public health and surgery at the University of Alberta and an emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

    "It's something about Albertans and Alberta workers and Alberta drivers and Alberta parents and Alberta legislators that makes us a very unsafe province.

    "It's a very cavalier, easygoing, 'I don't want to be legislated so stay out of my face' attitude. And it translates into a pretty weak attitude toward safety in the work environment."

    But it's also a Canadian problem.

    A report released by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards late last year found that five Canadian workers die every day.

    The report found that in 2003, Canada had the fifth highest rate of workplace deaths out of 29 OECD countries. Only South Korea, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey were worse.

    "Until governments take the injury problem as seriously as they take heart disease or cancer," says Francescutti, "nothing is going to change."

    Tim Maguire had heard about the sizzling economy when he arrived in Calgary in mid-2004. He was confident of getting work, but didn't expect to find it at the first job site he walked up to.

    He'd grown up on a farm and had worked as a pilot in the bush near Thunder Bay for six years, but had no experience on a building site.

    His inexperience proved to be no hindrance. Maguire got a job the first day he looked.

    "I literally walked around the corner to a framing operation," he says. "I was a farm kid, so I knew how to swing a hammer, but that was the limit of my experience.

    "I was very upfront. ...I didn't realize how easy it would be to get work.

    "They said, 'Yeah, we need a hand,' and it went from there."

    There was no training, no mention of safety equipment. But there were trips to the liquor store, he says, almost every day about 2 p.m. Maguire, the new guy, would go buy a 15-pack of beer and his work colleagues would polish them off before going back to work.

    If the home-building company's van drove past, the beer would be hidden, then pulled out again once it had gone around the corner.

    Maguire was surprised by the antics, but dismissed it as part of the business.

    "I'm used to cowboy operations because I flew in the bush, and I was a farm kid. I was like, 'Whoa, this is what these guys do.' "

    Two weeks in, the framing company headed out of the province. Jobless, Maguire walked down the street and got a job with another contractor.

    His second boss, he says, was more responsible than the first. But again, no training was offered.

    "It didn't really occur to me that there should have been maybe some training or something," Maguire says.

    Almost 400,000 jobs are expected to be created in Alberta in the next decade. Already, the province is graduating more apprentices per capita than anywhere else in Canada.

    Last December, Alberta added more than 10,000 jobs, three times the national growth rate.

    The labour shortage has seen a record influx of workers, all looking to benefit from the boom.

    Some high school graduates are walking into $100,000 oilpatch jobs; experienced, skilled workers are chasing the money around Fort McMurray, leaving a void in other industries.

    And some say the first corner being cut is safety, as workers strive for a buck.

    "This is what we describe as the dark side of Alberta's boom," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "There is a price to the boom and in many ways that price is being paid by workers in terms of their lives and their health.

    "People are literally being hired off the street. And unless those workers are provided with proper safety training, increasing injury rates are almost inevitable."

    The provincial government says workplace health and safety is a priority, but labour leaders are skeptical. They say the province isn't doing enough to enforce its safety guidelines.

    "I know this is not the province to be pushing government regulation," says Nick Stewart, president of United Steelworkers in Alberta, "but I think it's an important part."

    The province has moved on the issue. In the past three years, it has stepped up its prosecutions. It now employs two full-time Crown prosecutors who deal solely with the workplace.

    Their work is sending ripples through industries. In 2005-06, more than 15 prosecutions were brought and won against companies and employers linked to workplace incidents, almost double the number brought in 1997, 1998 and 1999 combined.

    And employers now face stiffer punishments -- the province introduced maximum fines of $500,000 three years ago, enough to put some companies out of business.


  2. #2


    Workplace deaths cont...

    However, about 80 occupational health and safety officers have a hard time enforcing safety standards across more than 150,000 work sites, critics contend.

    For her part, Evans describes news of each death as "a kick in the gut." But she says numbers don't tell the whole story.

    The provincial government -- which uses a statistic called lost time injury rates, gleaned from payroll data submitted by employers to the Alberta Workers' Compensation Board -- says fatality and injury rates are decreasing.

    But critics say lost time injury figures are misleading -- Francescutti describes them as "bull...."

    Evans says the responsibility for making workplaces safer must be shared by everyone, and that more legislation isn't necessarily the answer.

    "When it comes right down to it, if you put yourself in a compromising situation -- you don't put on the hard hat, you go up on a roof without training, you get drunk the night before or do drugs -- you have to accept that responsibility," she says.

    "You could put 1,000 inspectors on the job and still never be there at the time an accident or injury takes place. The key is education, the key is training the worker, the key is sharing the responsibility between the worker and the employer."

    Kevin Flaherty, president of the Edmonton-based, not-for-profit Alberta Workers Health Centre, says the industry's rookies are at greatest risk. He says that's where much of the province's focus needs to be.

    "You have new workers being supervised, trained by workers who barely have more experience than they do," Flaherty says. "And there is huge pressure out there to just stay the course and get the job done."

    Tim Maguire started work late the day he was hurt, a little more than a month on the job.

    He dropped off his three kids -- Colton, Ashton and Emily -- at their bus stop before heading back home to say goodbye to his wife, Barbie.

    He drove to work and started helping his colleagues unload the main floor package of the home they were framing.

    Maguire lifted one end of the house's heavy main beam, while a co-worker lifted the other. The pair began carrying it to the side of the house, Maguire walking backwards.

    He tripped on the foundation -- and fell backwards into the basement, landing hard on a concrete slab about three metres below.

    Lying there, he couldn't feel anything.

    "I actually stayed conscious the whole time," he recalls. "I told them to call an ambulance, then call my wife, then call my mom in Manitoba."

    He was flown by air ambulance to Foothills Hospital, where the reality of what had happened began to sink in.

    "I had more than an inkling. I remember saying to the nurse, 'I don't want to be a quadriplegic,' and she just told me to take it one day at a time.

    Doctors told Maguire he had crushed his C5-C6 vertebrae. He'd broken his neck and would need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

    As a safety manager for a Calgary home builder and a relative of an injured worker, Darrell Landon sees the issue from both sides.

    At least three times a week, he makes the heartbreaking trip to the spinal unit at Foothills Hospital. His brother-in-law broke his back three months ago when he fell through a hole that should have been covered -- or at least protected by a guardrail -- on an Airdrie building site.

    While Landon manages workplace safety for the Qualico Group of Companies, his brother-in-law lies in a hospital bed and struggles to roll over, injured on a competitor's job site.

    His sister-in-law has become both a wife and a caregiver, and his two young nieces are having to learn new ways to play with their dad.

    Landon says the safety-conscious are fighting an uphill battle against a labour culture that cares little about protecting workers.

    "The culture within our industry has always been that safety isn't really relevant," says the former house framer, who became involved in safety promotion when a colleague fell and nearly died.

    "We need to create some outrage and get people to understand that safety is important. We have to stop people dying on work sites."

    Landon concedes the construction industry's record is grim. Between 1995 and 2005, 346 Albertans died in construction and the trades, the most of any industry.

    "As employers, we are responsible to make sure our people are working safely. I think people need to change their attitude," says Trampas Mayfield, chairman of the safety committee of the Calgary Region Homebuilders Association.

    "We are getting on top of it now, but last year was really bad. A lot of my accidents were kids, first week on the job, not orientated properly -- and they're getting hurt.

    "It's a sad thing when you meet these kids at the hospital and their parents are asking, 'Why is my son lying on this emergency bed?' and you're going, 'I'm sorry. He slipped through the cracks.' "

    While prime contractors are trying to improve safety, old habits die hard, Landon says. Smaller operators and contractors continue to cut corners. And many workers simply refuse to change the way they work, he says.

    "With a lot of the industry out there, the day you show up for work you're lucky if we'll give you a lid and some boots. Most of the time it's, 'Here you go, get to work.' "

    Like others, Landon says the boom shouldn't be used as an excuse for poor safety. His company recently introduced a new policy of identifying problems on work sites and solving them before people get hurt.

    When a safety breach is reported, the work site is shut down for an average of three hours. It has already had the desired effect -- fewer incidents, fewer injuries, greater awareness.

    Landon concludes: "Why, as a society, do we get outraged with people killing people, but we have no problems with businesses killing people?"

    Change is already happening elsewhere. The oilpatch, in particular, has seen a reduction in the number of incidents in relation to the huge influx of workers.

    Many oil and gas companies now require that contractors have near-perfect safety records before they hire them. Those with bad records are blacklisted.

    "We are seeing a doubling, a tripling, or a quadrupling in activity levels, and we are seeing a dilution of experience in the workforce," says Murray Sunstrum, vice-president of safety for Enform, the health and safety arm of the upstream petroleum industry, "and yet the numbers don't go to hell."

    And in some companies, the numbers are actually improving.

    NAL Resources, a mid-size oil and gas management company, was last year recognized by the Workers' Compensation Board as a safety leader. Prompted by a poor safety record amongst its contractors eight years ago, the Calgary-based company has since reduced its lost time injury claims by 85 per cent.

    "There has to be a commitment to want to either change or make a difference," says chief operating officer Jonathan Lexier. "You can't fake sincerity. You have to put the time and the energy and the resources into it."

    When Tim Maguire finally went home after three months at Foothills Hospital, he couldn't even hit a light switch or turn a door handle.

    Maguire now has some use of his biceps -- a light switch is no longer a problem. He receives workers compensation and lives in a new house just nine doors down from his old one.

    He is starting to think of a new career, 21/2 years after he made that fateful decision to work construction for some quick money.

    He's taking computer mapping courses and hopes to one day work again in the aviation industry, perhaps as a dispatcher.

    He doesn't blame anyone for his injury, and is even sympathetic toward the owner of the framing company he was working for when he broke his neck.

    "I'm more upset and embarrassed at myself. Walking backward on a construction site, around a foundation? I mean, come on, I should have known better."

    But he does have a message for people thinking of jumping into Alberta's booming labour force.

    "You've got to be careful. Maybe just grabbing the first job that comes along isn't a good idea."

    Maguire still thinks of flying, can still picture flying over Lake Superior. He knows he'll never fly for an airline, but has fulfilled part of his dream.

    A year ago, his wife told him she was taking him to Banff, but instead took him to Springbank Airport west of Calgary, where a light plane was waiting. Maguire was airborne again.

    "I sat in the front with the pilot and we flew. Honestly, I didn't think I would ever be in a small plane again. We flew around for an hour ... and it was just great."


  3. #3
    C2E Hard Core Contributor
    Join Date
    Feb 2006
    City Of Champions


    When I was working construction this summer we had two guys get seriously hurt (one fell forty something feet). It wasn't because of relaxed saftey procedures, it wasn't because the contactor was asking them to do something unsafe, nor were they doing something that was beyond their capability.

    It was because they were either not following set procedures or were being just plain stupid. You can't have someone their holding everyones hand 12 hours a day and you can't legislate against stupidity.

    Sure, thier are instances where that is not the case...

  4. #4
    Addicted to C2E
    Mr. Reality Check

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    Mar 2006
    Edmonton, Alberta


    Also from today's Herald:

    "In the oilpatch, motor vehicle collisions kill more workers than anything else. Murray Sunstrum, vice-president of safety for Enform -- the upstream petroleum industry's health and safety arm -- says the issue is a critical one.

    "We tend to focus on the sensational and not the mundane. We tend to see a lot of things blowing up, a lot of things on fire," he says, "but are we as an industry willing to raise our hands and say we have a real problem with driver safety? Are we as a society willing to raise our hands and say we have a problem with driver safety?"

    As to a report that says "in 2003, Canada had the fifth highest rate of workplace deaths out of 29 OECD countries. Only South Korea, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey were worse", I would have more than some doubts as to the relative accuracy of reporting workplace deaths - or anything else potentially detrimental for that matter - between South Korea, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey relative to comparable reporting in Canada.

  5. #5
    I'd rather C2E than work!
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    Mar 2006
    Strathearn, Edmonton


    Safety enforcement continues to be a huge problem in Alberta. There is a lot of lip service paid by a lot of contractors to safety, with zero follow up.
    Having worked in the commercial construction industry for 4 years, I can say that things have gotten tighter. However, they are still incredibly lax as compared to even where common sense should put them.
    There is quite a few initiatives however that are good preventive action measure such as, mandatory reflective vest, safety glasses and hardhats. All of which do lower the risk of injury, but certain contractors do nothing but inform the workers, fill the paper work and close their eyes.
    The last huge remaining obstacle is the men themselves. There is still a large prevailing safety slows me down, tough guy, or worried about refusing to do a task one would see as unsafe for fear of losing employment attitude out there.
    In the end all the regulations and recourse will not take away all the injuries and deaths. It comes down to a person being able to stand up and say to them selfs, their boss or the general contractor that something is unsafe and they would rather be able to go home at the end of the day.

  6. #6
    First One is Always Free
    Join Date
    Jan 2007


    I just moved from Ontario and there was a controversial ad campaign by the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) regarding accidents. Basically in the commercial, corpses of various industrial and other work site deaths would talk about how their death wasn't really an accident.

    I tend to agree that most accidents are preventable and it is a shared responsibility of employers, workers and government. Simply making rules is not useful if they are not enforced through employers or government via fines and positive financial incentives. It is in all of our interests as a society to make our workplaces safe.

  7. #7
    C2E Hard Core Contributor
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    Mar 2006
    St. Albert


    The company I work for is in industrial construction and maintenance. Safety is always the absolute first priority in everything we do.
    My tradesmen work in incredibly dangerous conditions including confined space, heights, H2S gas, high temperatures, and often areas of structural instability.
    Because of the dangers involved we have a culture of safety that is part of everything we do.
    We haven't had a lost time accident in 8 years and went all of last year without even a recordable incident.
    Working safely and without harm is an acheivable goal, but it is a result of a company and industry wide culture that everybody has to believe in. It goes beyond advertisements and slogans to being a way of thinking.

  8. #8


    Quote Originally Posted by ralph60
    The company I work for is in industrial construction and maintenance. Safety is always the absolute first priority in everything we do.
    My tradesmen work in incredibly dangerous conditions including confined space, heights, H2S gas, high temperatures, and often areas of structural instability.
    Because of the dangers involved we have a culture of safety that is part of everything we do.
    We haven't had a lost time accident in 8 years and went all of last year without even a recordable incident.
    Working safely and without harm is an acheivable goal, but it is a result of a company and industry wide culture that everybody has to believe in. It goes beyond advertisements and slogans to being a way of thinking.
    I agree and this mindset is what all employees and employers need to have. Safety is everybody's business.

  9. #9
    C2E Continued Contributor
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    Jan 2007


    Quite the sensationalist piece of "journalism".

    That's not to say that there aren't serious accidents or fatalities occuring, but if you were to take the data and apply it against the total hours worked in the province on construction sites and compared it against other years 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago you will find that sites are safer today than they were years ago.

    I don't like this guy....

    "But critics say lost time injury figures are misleading -- Francescutti describes them as "bull...." "

    IMHO, Francescutti quite often full of hot air. Lost time injury figures are NOT misleading when companies have a solid safety plan in place that includes modified work duties for injured workers. He has spoken of this before (modified work duties), and I don't buy it for a second. If someone is injured on the job why should he sit at home if he can be at work performing other tasks until he is better? He feels good being productive as opposed to sitting on the coach watching Oprah and eating bon-bons and the company can keep its WCB premiums down by not having an employee missing work due to injury. It's a win-win situation for all involved.

    Francescutti thinks comstruction companies are twisting the data for self-serving purposes.

  10. #10

    Default Remembering those who lost their lives at work

    Remembering those who lost their lives at work
    124 workplace-related deaths in Alberta last year

    Sat, April 28, 2007
    By MAX MAUDIE, Sun Media

    Angeline Moellmann says the death of her husband is a nightmare that’s never ended.

    Nov. 24, 1994, Grant Moellmann – an iron worker – fell 13 metres from a bridge being constructed over the LRT tracks northeast of what’s now Rexall Place.

    “For years after Grant’s death, I dreamed of him falling, trying to grab onto something,” his wife recalled through tears yesterday.

    She said she still misses her husband.

    Moellmann was speaking to a few hundred people at city hall for the International Day of Mourning for Killed and Injured Workers.

    The day her husband died was already to be her husband’s last shift, but for another reason. He was set to retire after 42 years of work in the trades.

    Instead, while helping place the bridge’s last girder, it’s believed Grant tripped on a Nelson stud – a large rivet – jutting from a beam, sending him on the fatal fall.

    “It didn’t need to happen,” Angeline said. “We have to get the message out that these things don’t have to happen.”

    Had he been wearing a safety harness – something that to this day remains optional, she said – he may have lived.

    September, 1998, a plaque was unveiled at the southwest foot of the bridge, now known as Grant Moellmann Bridge.

    According to Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry, 124 people died in workplace-related deaths last year. Twenty-seven more died the first two months of 2007.

    According to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, there were 1,097 Canadian workplace fatalities in 2005.

    The Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon were the most dangerous places to work with a combined 27.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, while Alberta clocked in fourth worst at eight deaths per 100,000 workers.

    Prince Edward Island led the way with 1.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

    “I long for a day when there is no reason for us to rail against unnecessary deaths,” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan told the crowd at city hall.

    “Some would say this is the price of prosperity. I say, if it is the price, the price is too high.”

    He cited the recent deaths of two Chinese temporary foreign workers killed near Fort McMurray when the roof of a huge oil container collapsed while being put into place.

    “Those workers died because keeping workers safe has not been a priority during the boom,” McGowan said.

    He said that while government and employers must do more to protect workers, employees must step up, too. “We can and should demand better rules, better enforcement, and better education.”

    Doug Knight of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees told a gathering at their Edmonton office that workers should walk if their workplace is a danger.

    “They should be reporting anything that they see that could be a hazard to the point that if it’s bad enough, they should be refusing to do the work if it puts them in danger,” Knight said.

    At city hall, 124 flowers were given out, each with a piece of paper attached naming one of the workers that died in Alberta last year, and talking a little about who they were.

    “Our hope is that the flowers turn the numbers into human beings again,” said emcee Mike Melymick of the United Transportation Workers.

    -with files from Canadian Press



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