A recent decision to delay the trial for at least two of the companies charged in the deaths of two temporary foreign workers (TFWs) means it will be at least five years since the incident before their families can get any closure.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (CNRL), Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd, a state-owned company out of Beijing, and SSEC Canada Ltd were scheduled to appear in court October 3, but the case has been pushed back a full year.
Sinopec Shanghai Engineering is appealing a ruling by Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench that concluded the company was within provincial jurisdiction and would be tried alongside CNRL and SSEC Canada. Sinopec Shanghai Engineering argued that it had not been properly served and, as such, the court had no jurisdiction. The company was granted a stay of the judgement and an appeal is scheduled to be heard on October 6.
In a separate matter, an application by CNRL to postpone the case was also granted. As such, the trial for both CNRL and SSEC Canada has been pushed back to October of 2012. (The upcoming hearing will help determine if Sinopec Shanghai Engineering also goes to court at that time.)
Charges were laid following a deadly incident in April of 2007 at the CNRL Horizon Oil Sands site in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Two Chinese TFWs were welding the roof of an oil storage tank under construction when the roof collapsed. An electrician and a scaffolder, aged 33 and 27, respectively, were killed and five other workers were injured.
The oil tanks are large enough that a house could easily fit inside, says Barrie Harrison, a spokesman for Alberta Immigration and Employment in Edmonton. "When the one tank collapsed, some of the I-beams would have been 40 or 50 feet in length and they were just twisted like pretzels," Harrison reports.
The three companies face a total of 53 charges under Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). CNRL has been charged with 29 counts, SSEC Canada with 14 and Sinopec Shanghai Engineering with 10. Among other issues, the charges cite the alleged failure to protect the health and safety of workers, and numerous failures relating to engineering and equipment. The maximum penalty for a first offence is $500,000 for each charge.
Temporary foreign workers said to be at risk
"If we don't have legal frameworks in place to hold these employers accountable, should we even be allowing them to work in places like the oil sands?" asks Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour in Edmonton.
"Thousands of temporary foreign workers will be used for another generation of oil sands-related construction projects. Given that reality, we want to make sure that this case proceeds so lessons can be learned from that tragedy so it's not repeated in the next boom," McGowan says. "The longer it takes for the government to proceed with the case, the less likely it will be, in our opinion, that they'll be able to successfully prosecute the companies involved."
The number of TFWs in Alberta almost tripled between 2006 and 2010, reports Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Last year, the province had almost 58,000 such workers, with more than 1,500 of them coming from the People's Republic of China.
Although TFWs are afforded the same rights and protections as any other worker under Alberta's OHSA, McGowan argues that many of them are completely unaware of what acts, rules and standard practices govern work in the province.
OHS Canada, Wed Sept 28 2011