EDMONTON - The death of two foreign workers from China at a sprawling oilsands project in northern Alberta has led to the most charges ever laid in a single workplace accident in Alberta.
The Tory government announced Tuesday - two years after their deaths - that three companies face a total of 53 charges in the collapse of a giant holding tank at a construction site in April 2007.
The charges against Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNRL) and two other companies have been laid under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The maximum penalty for a first offence under the act is $500,000 for each charge.
Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd., and SSEC Canada Ltd. also face numerous charges including several counts for failing to ensure the health and safety of the workers.
But Barrie Harrison, spokesman for Alberta's labour ministry, said the province has not been able to serve the charges on the Chinese engineering company, which no longer has an office in Calgary.
"At some point there may have to be clarification by the courts as to whether we have jurisdiction to charge this company," he said. "Our prosecutors are not going to lay the charges unless they feel we have jurisdiction."
"But at this point, we're expecting all three companies to appear in court June 8th in Fort McMurray."
The two Chinese workers were killed and two others were seriously injured when the roof of a huge oil container collapsed as it was being put in place.
The charges include failing to ensure that a professional engineer prepared and certified drawings and procedures and failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly.
The construction was part of expansion at the Horizon oilsands project near Fort McKay, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Harrison said it's the largest number of the charges laid in relation to a single workplace incident in the province.
Premier Ed Stelmach said the province places the highest priority on worker safety.
"We've got to be very clear to anybody that's doing business in Alberta," he said. "Whether it's a temporary foreign worker or an Albertan, these are the rules that you follow and the safety of workers is paramount."
One of Alberta's most outspoken labour leaders says this deadly incident was especially shocking because oilsands companies have a relatively good safety record.
"Up until that incident, fatalities were a rarity in the oilsands," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
McGowan also says the labour group's own research has confirmed that there have been almost no accidents in the province involving large oil storage tanks.
"We weren't able to find any other example of either tanks collapsing during construction or after they've been built," he said.
The labour leader is glad the companies involved are being prosecuted and wondered why it took two years for the charges to be laid.
The premier said the investigation was "very complex."
McGowan also raised concerns about labour safety standards before the collapse.
"The big question for us is where was the provincial government before this accident happened?" said McGowan.
"While these prosecutions are welcome, it's a little bit like closing the barn door after the horses got out."
Hector Goudreau, Alberta's minister of employment and immigration, said the charges reflect the government's concern about protecting workers.
"The fact that there's 53 charges is an indication of how serious we're taking this," the minister told reporters Tuesday.
"But having said that, the oil and gas industry is one of the safest places to work when you look at the thousands of people that are involved."
New Democrat Rachel Notley scoffed at the minister's remarks, saying Alberta has a poor record when it comes to worker safety.
"If you want to stop people from dying on the job, you have to inspect before the accidents happen," said Notley. "You have to have enough people in the field to do the inspections.
"People didn't have to die for them to finally get that message."
Canadian Natural Resources issued a statement late Tuesday.
"For the duration of the Horizon Project we maintained a strong safety record on the construction site," it said. "We were deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of the two contract workers and the related injuries to the associated contract workers."
A spokeswoman for SSEC Canada Ltd. said the company received the charges late Tuesday afternoon and wanted time to review them before offering comment.
Canadian Press, Tues Apr 21 2009
Byline: Jim Macdonald