On Jan. 7, 1981, four construction workers plunged 36 floors to their deaths from the top of the Bentall Centre in Vancouver. Despite a formal inquest and the formation of an industry group — which recommended compulsory safety training for all construction workers — the province has seen an average of 25 deaths a year since the accident and 35 deaths per year for the last five years, according to the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council (BCYT-BCTC).
“Twenty-seven years is already too long to wait for implementation of this life-saving recommendation,” states a report on occupational health and safety in B.C.’s construction industry released by the BCYT-BCTC and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).
In looking at the safety systems and legislation of B.C., the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Ontario for comparison, Building a Safer Work Environment for B.C. Construction Workers states policies in B.C.’s Workers’ Compensation Act dealing with worker participation and representation in this area are “weak, ineffectual and increasingly irrelevant to the construction industry” and “up to 90 per cent of B.C. construction companies have no participation in on-the-job occupational health and safety management.”
The models in North America are not working, said David Fairey, co-author of the report and an economist and research associate with the CCPA.
“There should be a universal, unfettered right to safety representation at every work site, regardless of the numbers employed.”
The report also recommends workers and safety representatives be given WorkSafeBC-certified safety training and union safety representatives be given the right to enter non-union work sites to provide safety representation for all workers. And the report says WorkSafeBC should set up pilot projects to find out how European and Australian innovations in this area — such as roving safety representatives and worker safety advisors — could be replicated.
But the construction industry has done a lot over the years to strengthen health and safety in construction, said Al Johnson, regional director with responsibility for construction at Vancouver-based WorkSafeBC.
“The injury rate is at an all-time low and those statistics demonstrate the industry is performing better than it has in past years,” he said. “But from our perspective, there are always new ideas, abilities to do more and do things differently, and we’re open to ideas.”
There are, however, several issues that have to be addressed. In the “gold rush” atmosphere, corners are often cut to meet deadlines or cut costs, states the report. And many employers and workers are driven into an underground economy where non-reporting of accidents and injuries is common practice.
In addition, about 80 to 90 per cent of construction employers have 10 or fewer workers, so in B.C. they are not required to elect or have a safety representative. Thirty years ago, employers directly employed construction workers but now the large employers are really virtual companies that contract everything out, so “it’s very difficult to co-ordinate all the subcontractors and make sure everyone is following the rules,” said Fairey. “The self-regulatory mode doesn’t fit the changing structure of the industry.”
It’s also hard to establish a safety system when the environment — equipment, setting, tasks, people — is dynamic and changing constantly.
“We’re migrant workers, we may be two hours, two days, two months or two years on a work site and we move around, therefore the system itself doesn’t address fair representation for construction workers within the safety system,” said Wayne Peppard, executive director of the BCYT-BCTC.
Blowing the whistle is also not an easy option for workers, especially temporary foreign who may not speak the language or know their rights.
“The fear of reprisal is huge in the industry,” said Peppard.
But WorkSafeBC has strengthened regulations when it comes to an employer’s responsibility to train workers and ensure they are trained sufficiently, said Johnson. For example, orientation training for new and young workers has been better defined.
“I like the idea of training, I like the idea of education and awareness — how much one needs to do is really the question,” he said
WorkSafeBC has also increased the number of inspections, along with covering more sectors, said Johnson, and for the last four years it has used a high-risk strategy to target those parts of the industry where injuries are occurring most frequently.
As for the workers, the regulations require them to get involved if they see an unsafe condition or unsafe act and bring it to the attention of their supervisor.
“They have the responsibility to refuse unsafe work and our expectation is they exercise that responsibility,” said Johnson.