Weather-related incidences spawn Calgary safety plan

Proposed $250,000 warning system will send real-time weather data to site supervisors

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2009, a sudden gust of wind swept a bundle of corrugated metal off of an 18-storey building under construction in downtown Calgary. A six-metre-long piece of metal struck a family more than 30 metres below, killing a three-year-old girl, Michelle Krsek, and injuring her father and seven-year-old brother.

Since then, Calgarians have seen more, not less, instances of materials falling from construction sites.  In the fall, a gust of wind carried two-by-fours and a sheet of plywood off of the 15th floor of a building under construction in the city’s southwest end.

Weeks later, scaffolding blew off the 19th floor of a building on 9th Avenue. In August, a mysterious liquid fell from a downtown construction site onto a few vehicles below and a three-metre long piece of metal dented an SUV driving along 9th Avenue during the morning rush hour.

“The press has been kind of tough in Calgary lately,” says Bob Robinson, president and general manager of Westcor Construction and co-chairman of the new Construction On-Site Safety Committee, struck by the Calgary Construction Association this winter.

He notes that since Krsek’s death, “anything that falls off of a building in Calgary is first, second or third-page news.”
Robinson himself has been interviewed for some of the media coverage. After “taking a serious hit” during a TV interview earlier this year, he and a colleague from the City of Calgary decided to do something to improve safety protocols in the industry.

They brought together industry and city officials to create a committee to look into on-site safety. Months later, they’ve created a best practices manual and distributed it to 2,000 people. Recommendations include using netting to prevent objects from falling to the ground, and a weather-alert system to keep site managers aware of sudden weather changes, particularly in wind speeds.

Construction site safety is regulated by provincial legislation, not city bylaws, and the City of Calgary is working to have these new recommendations included in provincial safety regulations, says Cliff de Jong, senior special projects officer with the City of Calgary’s Development and Buildings Approvals department. At the moment, the building code is quite general, only requiring contractors to “ensure public safety,” he says.

But the city doesn’t need the province’s permission to take action on the committee’s recommendation to create a citywide weather-monitoring system to help construction sites know when to “batten down the hatches.” 

“Calgary has a reputation for weather that can change really quickly — and the wind is a big part of that,” says Robinson. While Environment Canada is useful, “they only have so much weather data,” he says.

Calgary has set aside $250,000 to create a weather-monitoring system that would be able to collect and report local weather conditions in real-time and alert supervisors via PDAs or cell phones.

De Jong isn’t aware of any other Canadian cities doing the same thing. “There’s only one city we’re aware of that’s been progressing down this avenue, and that’s New York.”

Naturally, Calgary isn’t the only place to experience weather-related accidents at work sites.  In 2008, a gust of wind caused a concrete form to fall on three workers in Toronto. The year before, a 30-year-old Toronto man was killed after being struck in the head by a piece of metal that blew off of a 35-store condominium under construction. In 2008, a crane at a Seschelt, B.C., construction site blew over when a gale of wind caught the load it was lifting.

To keep objects from falling from construction sites, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) recommends work sites employ chutes or other devices to dispose of garbage, gather up debris to keep the work area orderly, and never throw tools or other equipment.  The organization also recommends keeping materials at least two metres from openings, roof edges, excavations or trenches.

Of course, falling objects are just one weather-related hazard. Lightening is another issue for those who work outside, like construction workers, road crews, landscapers and farm workers. According to CCOHS, lightening kills more Canadians than hail, wind, rain and tornados combined.

If workers are caught outside in a lightening storm, it’s important to avoid tall objects, and to avoid being the highest object on the horizon by crouching down on the balls of their feet, minimizing surface contact with the ground.

Robinson believes most Calgary companies are sticklers for safety. But he also thinks stronger regulations are needed to motivate the less conscientious to step up — and he thinks the industry as a whole would agree. After all, in addition to protecting people, it makes economic sense.

“If you have one single incident downtown, the cost… of stopping the work, the cost of the reputation damages that you suffer as a company — that pays for a (safety) manual probably 10 times over.”

Caitlin Crawshaw is an Edmonton-based freelance writer.

A builder works on the roof of a garage as a lightning bolt strikes behind
him in Cochrane, Alta., 35 kilometres west of Calgary. Calgary has set aside
$250,000 to create a weather monitoring system that would report local
weather conditions in real time and alert supervisors via PDAs or cellphones.
Photo: Patrick Price (Reuters)

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