Armoured car industry not so secure

Riding in an armoured car — protected against bullets and extreme temperatures — should be a secure feeling.

But according to unions representing employees in the armoured car industry, there are few seats less safe.

"This industry is inherently dangerous," said Mike Armstrong, national representative for Unifor. "That’s just a fact."

A fact made all too clear in the wake of several attacks on armoured cars this year.

A man in Longueuil, Que., was killed early in the morning on Feb. 1 when he tried to rob a two-person crew carrying cash from an ATM.

On Jan. 20 a two-person crew was robbed at gunpoint outside the Fairview Mall in Toronto. Several shots were fired.

Unifor, which represents 2,000 workers in the industry, reports there have been 70 attacks on armoured cars in Canada in the past 13 years. The attacks have resulted in three fatalities and two serious injuries. The union also reports an estimated $60 million has been funnelled into organized crime in the last decade as a result of attacks on armoured cars.

These statistics will never improve unless the industry overhauls its outlook on safety, Armstrong said.

"There are no federal regulations surrounding this industry," he said. "It all comes at the expense of the health and safety of not only the workers, but of the public."

Anyone can start an armoured car company in Canada and the lack of national standards has resulted in a lack of continuity. While crews from larger companies — including Brink’s, G4S and Garda — drive armoured vehicles and carry firearms, some smaller businesses have unarmed employees driving soft-shell cars.

"It’s just an absolute disaster waiting to happen," Armstrong said.

He explained the majority of attacks on armoured car crews are carried out by organized crime, and companies operating with only minimal safety procedures in place are putting their employees at risk.

Even the idea that armoured car crews are vulnerable puts employees at risk, said Jim Chalmers, director of Teamster Canada Armoured Car.

"You have to be careful what you say because you don’t want to jeopardize anybody," Chalmers said. "When you have reports in the media that question the capabilities and training of people working in the industry, saying they are understaffed and ill-trained, it attracts a whole new group of individuals who would have never considered robbing an armoured crew."

Future examinations of industry safety should take place in closed quarters, Chalmers said, with all parties recognizing the sensitivity of street operations.

But a nationwide meeting of the minds isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Currently, there exists only minimal regulation in the industry with a patchwork of legislations governed across jurisdictions.

While the federal government is responsible for the Firearms Act — which establishes the conditions under which armoured car guards carry their weapons — rules surrounding the safety of vehicles and driver licensing are governed by provincial highway traffic acts.

"It’s a scary industry to be in," said Paul Carson, director at Paragon Security. Carson, who has been in the industry for 27 years, has himself worked as both a messenger and a guard on armoured crews. "From a safety perspective it’s not a tenable situation," he said of the current culture, citing the recent switch from three-person crews to two-person crews as a particular concern.

"I’ve always worked on a three-man crew where we had a guard, a messenger and a driver," Carson said, calling the lack of sufficient safety practices "a coroner’s inquest waiting to happen."

Because robberies are an ambush scenario, employees have no time to prepare and must rely completely on their training.

"You become complacent, and that’s the problem. It’s human nature," Carson said. "You’ve done this 1,001 times before and the 1,002 time is the day your life ends."

Because employees are at risk every day, Unifor is calling for their training to reflect the inherent danger. Safety practices should be continually upgraded, similar to the constant training police officers and firefighters undergo.

If these standards were mandatory nationwide, companies would be unable to cut corners — and ultimately put employees in danger — in an effort to stay competitive.

"Take away the incentive to race to the bottom," Armstrong said. "We don’t begrudge people making money, that’s fine. Employers can make all the money in the world, the paramount thing we have to think about is the health and safety of the men and women who do the work."

Liz Foster writes for Canadian Safety Reporter, a sister publication of COS.