53 charges for CNRL, contractors

Following a record 53 charges laid against three companies for a 2007 accident that killed two workers at the oilsands work site, the Alberta Federation of Labour blames the provincial government for not being more vigilant to prevent such a tragedy.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) announced 53 charges yesterday in connection to the April 24, 2007, accident that also injured four other workers, two seriously, at the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon project, about 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Twenty-nine charges were laid against CNRL, the operator of the Horizon site where the accident occurred. Another 14 charges were laid against contractors SSEC Canada Ltd. and 10 against the Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd. The charges included several counts of failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers. Other charges include failing to ensure that a professional engineer prepared and certified drawings and procedures; failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly; failing to ensure that U-bolt type clips used for fastening rope wire were installed properly; and failing to ensure that wire rope being used was safe. The three companies are expected to make their first court appearance June 8 in Fort McMurray.

Hong Liang Liu, 33, an electrical engineer, and Genbao Ge, 27, a scaffolder, died after a roof collapsed in a large oil tank where they were working. Both were non-union employees of Sinopec Shanghai Engineering. CNRL had contracted the company to build the tanks in 2006. Liang had been in Canada since September 2006, while Ge arrived in January 2007. Four other Chinese labourers were injured in the collapse. All were temporary labourers.

No one was injured when a second tank collapsed a few weeks later because the area was still under a stop-work order that covered the three of the 15 tanks from the April 24 accident.

"For the duration of the Horizon project, we maintained a strong safety record on the construction site. We were deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of the two contract workers and the related injuries to the associated contract workers. Our heartfelt sympathies are again extended to their families, friends and co-workers," said CNRL in a statement issued yesterday afternoon.

Through that same statement, the company noted that as the incident is now in "formal legal proceedings," it will issue no further comments until the matter has been resolved.

Meanwhile, the Alberta Federation of Labour says that once it was learned that a company from a Third World country with substandard construction safety history had been contracted to do the work, the government should have immediately stepped in to ensure the safety of the site.

"The government ignored the warning signs," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

Saying the provincial government dropped the ball, he said when it became public knowledge that CNRL was hiring a Chinese contracting firm to do all the work involved in construction of the tank farm, the provincial government should have stepped in to ensure this company was observing Canadian standards for both worksite safety and construction practices, and not importing substandard Third World practices.

McGowan said it's a company that has had all of its experience in China, which has an abysmal record when it comes to workplace safety especially in the construction industry.

"That fact alone should have been setting off alarm bells for provincial regulators and inspectors. The government should have had its inspectors on that site from Day 1 supervising the project and making sure Canadian practices and rules were being observed," he said. "That didn't happen, and the result was this unprecedented tank collapse, which took the lives of two workers and inured four others." McGowan said this is a tragedy that could have been prevented if the government had seen the red flags and sent inspectors to the site even before ground was broken. Everyone involved in the construction industry knew this was an accident waiting to happen.

"The real tragedy here is that the government ignored the warning signs."

An important lesson from this case, he said, is the government needs to be extra vigilant when it comes to construction companies coming into Canada from abroad that are not familiar with the Canadian construction context and that are not up to speed on Canadian health and safety rules or accepted Canadian construction practices.

"We think that the Chinese contractors' lack of familiarity with Canadian standards and practices is at the root of this tragedy. Frankly, we're concerned that they imported substandard practices along with their management team."

Though he's pleased the government is proceeding with charges against the companies involved, McGowan said he's "troubled" over the time it took and is concerned Crown prosecutors "dragged their heels."

"We think what happened on the CNRL site was one of the most serious violations of occupational health and safety rules and standards that we've seen in this province in a long time, and this is clearly a case where the companies involved have to be held to account," said McGowan, acknowledging it was satisfying to see the charges hadn't forgotten the injured workers. Some of the charges, all laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, also take into account the injured workers and the severity of their injuries as well as workers present when the accident occurred.

But the bigger concern for the AFL is that it's not convinced the charges are enough to prevent a another incident. The only way to avoid such a repeat is if the provincial government becomes more serious about enforcing its own health and safety rules, especially on construction worksites before accidents happen instead of waiting until after someone has died.

"Despite the number of charges being laid, it will be the courts that will determine the facts of the case, and determine the appropriate penalties, if any," said Barrie Harrison, OH&S spokesman, yesterday. The OH&S Act allows for up to a maximum $500,000 fine for each charge.

It's expected the Crown will only move ahead on those charges that carry a reasonable likelihood of conviction, Harrison said.

"Whether it's 53 charges or one, Occupational Health and Safety takes workplace health and safety extremely seriously and whether it's an injury on site or a death, or in this case a double fatality, all are taken seriously. I think our record over the last number of years when it comes to the number of charges and prosecutions have proven that."

When a workplace accident - fatal or not - occurs, OH&S has two years to lay charges. In this case, charges came three days shy of the deadline.

The investigation takes a number of months and is followed by a review of the file and work with Crown prosecutors to determine what charges, if any, are warranted.

"It's that process that takes a fair bit of time," said Harrison. More important, he added, OH&S had to ensure this investigation was proper and thorough because it was focusing on the loss of two lives.

"At the end of the day, that's probably the most important thing. To us, of course, regardless of where these workers are from, their place of origin, or country of birth, has no bearing, because every worker in Alberta has to be treated the same, and these are people who have friends and families and co-workers like the rest of us, and they deserve nothing less."

During the OH&S investigation, Alberta Employment and Immigration determined that 132 Chinese temporary foreign workers were not paid from April to July 2007. Their employer was SSEC Canada, and it is yet not clear why they weren't paid.

As a result, CNRL transferred $3.17 million to the province within the past couple of months for distribution to these workers.

"These funds are now held in a government trust account and we've begun the process of verifying individuals' identity and establishing a process for the distribution of these unpaid earnings," said Harrison. "We want to make sure that we do exercise all due diligence to ensure that these are getting directly in the hands of those who deserve it."

Meanwhile, he said the province will make "every reasonable effort" to collect the money from SSEC. If successful, CNRL will be reimbursed accordingly, he added.

Fort McMurray Today, Wed Apr 22 2009
Byline: Carol Christian

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