Lukaszuk disgusted with Alberta construction safety inspection results: ‘The hammer is going to be coming down in Alberta’

EDMONTON - Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk warned the provincial construction industry Tuesday that poor results during recent safety inspections may prompt a system of on-the spot fines or other deterrents.

Lukaszuk said Tuesday he was "disgusted" by the number of violations Occupational Health and Safety inspectors discovered during a fall inspection blitz of commercial construction sites.

The six-week campaign, which involved random checks at building sites between Oct. 8 and Nov. 22, is believed to be the first of its kind in Alberta. But judging by the results, it won't be the last, the minister said.

A total of 298 inspections were carried out, involving 146 companies and 73 different work sites. The blitz found 214 violations, 39 of which were considered dangerous enough to issue stop-work orders.

That means more than one-quarter of the sites inspected wound up with stop-work orders, Lukaszuk said.

"The results are nothing but disappointing; I'm quite disgusted with the numbers," he said at a news conference, held above a parkade construction site on the legislature grounds. "What this says to me is the message is not getting through. The hammer is going to be coming down in Alberta."

Fall hazards, including failures to provide protective gear or a protection plan, topped the list of violations. Lack of proper safeguards, such as coverings for openings and guardrails, was next on the list along with scaffolding violations.

"If there is no response, if we don't see improvement on the work sites, then we will be implementing new and more creative and more aggressive measures by which we will curtail those numbers," Lukaszuk said.

"All of these are egregious, because sometimes it's the most mundane violation - an extension cord lying around and people stumbling over it - that can potentially cause a fatality."

The minister said he is seriously considering a system of fines that safety inspectors could hand out as soon as they see violations. Both employers and employees could be hit.

Currently, fines are issued only through the courts, when the government decides to prosecute after serious injuries or deaths have occurred on a job site.

Liberal labour critic Hugh MacDonald and Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan both said they were not surprised by the number of violations discovered during the blitz.

"What I am surprised about is that it took the government this long to start conducting random inspections on construction work sites," McGowan said. "We in the labour movement have been begging for years for random inspections because we knew what they would find."

He said Lukaszuk's tough attitude needs to be augmented with more resources, including more inspectors with more powers and a greater willingness to prosecute unsafe companies.

MacDonald said some money currently going to workplace safety certificate programs should be diverted to enforcement of safety laws. He said the need for this is obvious, because over the last five years between 65 and 80 per cent of all job site inspections have resulted in an order being issued.

Unofficial government statistics show there have been 30 workplace deaths as of Dec. 1 this year, although some could prove to be medically related, a spokesman for Alberta Employment and Immigration said. About half of those deaths occurred in the construction industry, including a case two weeks ago in which an oilsands worker fell through a hole in some scaffolding.

Fatality numbers are up slightly from last year, the spokesman said.

The fall inspection blitz follows a November announcement in which the province vowed to take a number of steps to strengthen workplace safety enforcement, including a crackdown on companies with unpaid fines, more safety officers, and the creation of a new secretariat to deal with occupational disease.

While keeping an eye on the commercial construction sector, inspectors' plans for 2011 are to do blitzes on forklift operations, residential construction and companies employing many inexperienced workers, Lukaszuk said.

Edmonton Journal, Wed Dec 15 2010
Byline: Keith Gerein

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