Alberta employer cleared of safety charges after ‘freak’ accident at construction site

Company ‘went to considerable lengths to put effective policies, processes and procedures in place to ensure that a focus on safety permeated down to how crews did their work’

An Alberta employer in the oil and gas industry has been cleared of multiple charges in the wake of an accident that seriously injured a worker. In dismissing the charges, the Alberta Provincial Court noted the company’s extensive safety programs and the fact that the unsafe conditions weren’t reasonably foreseeable by the company and its experienced workers, who called it a “freak” accident.

Midwest Pipelines is a pipeline construction company for the oil and gas industry with offices in Calgary and Spruce Grove, Alta. The company had a number of safety procedures for its projects, including a certificate of recognition from the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Safety for employee familiarity with its safety program. 

All workers received worksite orientation and the company had a lengthy manual around health, safety and environmental loss management that set out safe work practices for many tasks performed by employees.

Additional safety practices included tailgate safety meetings at least once a day at worksites, weekly safety meetings between supervisors and management, and monthly safety meetings for all employees. 

Midwest safety personnel regularly conducted site visits to monitor safety compliance and the company also performed spot audits of safety forms completed for construction jobs.

On Dec. 12, 2013, several Midwest workers were installing a heavy metal boomstick on to a sideboom Caterpillar tractor — a tractor with a crane jutting out of one side used for hoisting and placing pipeline as well as moving other items. 

It was normal practice to dismantle the sideboom by removing the crane from the tractor to move between sites. Once at a new site, the crane was reattached. Sidebooms could be dismantled and reassembled several times on a pipeline project.

The installation of the sideboom involved picking the stick off the ground and guiding it into place with a second hoisting sideboom crane that lifted the stick in a sling on a hook to where it was to be attached on the tractor being assembled. 

The ends of the stick were guided by a worker into slots where large pins could be hammered through holes and hold the stick in place.

In this instance, when the hoisting sideboom lifted the stick toward the receiving tractor, the sling fell from its hook. The stick slid out and landed on the foot of the worker guiding it, who was standing close by, as per normal practice. 

The worker’s foot was severely injured and, at the hospital, doctors had to amputate four of the worker’s toes.

Three of the other four crew members didn’t see what caused the sling to fall off its hook or how the stick fell out of the sling. The remaining crew member saw the sling angle decrease and the stick shift toward the injured worker, but he didn’t see the stick drop as he looked away from it just before it fell. 

They also reported that it was a “freak accident” of a type they had never seen before.

An investigation determined that the sling used for moving the boomstick was too short, causing it to tilt and allowing one side of the sling to come off the hook, and a test lift wasn’t done to ensure the sling was at the stick’s centre of gravity. 

Several charges of safety offences

Midwest was charged with several offences under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act and Regulations, including:

•  failure to ensure, as far as it was reasonably practicable, the health and safety of the worker

•  failure to ensure that all equipment at the worksite would safely perform the function for which it was intended

•  failure to eliminate or control an existing or potential hazard that had been identified

•  failure to ensure a test lift was done

•  failure to ensure there was a safety latch on the hook holding the sling on the hoisting sideboom.

The court found that the length of the sling and the configuration being used — a “basket sling” in which when one arm fell off the hook, the stick would slide out — contributed to an unsafe condition. 

However, the evidence indicated that it was common practice for crews to mark the centre of gravity on sticks so they know where to put the sling — the crew in this case did just that, as per safe work procedures. 

Once the sling was lifted, it would be clear that it was at the centre of gravity and the failure to test did not contribute to the unsafe condition, said the court.

“Once the lift was begun and the sling was found to be at the [centre of gravity], the failure to put the stick down and lift it again the same way to satisfy a requirement for a test lift did not create an unsafe condition,” said the court.

The court also found that the basket sling configuration was normally used in the pipeline industry for lifts such as this one, and the crew didn’t report any issues with the length of the sling until after the accident.

Extensive safety procedures were in place: court

The court in R. v. Midwest Pipelines Inc., 2019 ABPC 118 (Alta. Prov. Ct.) found that Midwest “went to considerable lengths to put effective policies, processes and procedures in place to ensure that a focus on safety permeated down to how crews did their work,” and the company’s safety systems were in place when the worker was injured.

However, the crew involved in the accident didn’t receive specific training on assembling and disassembling sidebooms or how to deal with the type of unsafe condition caused by the length of the sling and the basket sling arrangement, said the court. 

The manual instructed workers to “use slings of proper length,” but it didn’t mention specific configurations for the sling or hook.

Could Midwest have taken steps to address the unsafe condition? 

The Crown pointed out that Midwest implemented a new safe job procedure after the accident that specified minimum sling lengths and angles for lifting boomsticks, but the court noted that the crew was “very experienced and otherwise competent” and even they didn’t appreciate the importance of the sling length or hadn’t seen a similar accident before. 

In addition, no other pipeline employers had seen anything similar to the new job procedure addressing specific sling lengths or other aspects of “routine, basic rigging practice.”

The court also determined that if a different type of safety latch was used on the hook, it would not have been able to prevent the boomstick — weighing 4,700 pounds — from escaping once it slipped from the sling; nor was there any evidence that an experienced crew needed training on such sling configurations.

The court found no evidence that the accident and the unsafe conditions that caused it were reasonably foreseeable to the point where Midwest could have taken reasonably practicable measures to prevent them or train its workers — who had disassembled and reassembled sidebooms numerous times without encountering such an incident — to guard against them. 

Only after the accident happened and everyone was aware of the possibility could the company adjust its safety procedures. Therefore, Midwest could successfully prove due diligence, said the court, adding that both Midwest and the pipeline owner, Enbridge, had systems in place for reviews and audits to ensure safety compliance. 

But due diligence couldn’t prevent a freak accident.

“Finding that Midwest should have foreseen a need to train this crew on sling configurations in these circumstances would be based on hindsight, rather than reasonable foresight,” said the court.

Finally, the court noted that following the investigation, the occupational health and safety officers didn’t seize the sling or order it taken out of service, meaning the equipment itself was not considered to have contributed to the unsafe conditions.

Midwest was cleared of all charges with a determination that it had done all that was reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of its workers and the accident that injured the worker’s foot wasn’t foreseeable.

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