Despite government initiatives, fatalities and injuries not letting up
In January 2017, a construction worker in Ontario slipped and fell 7.5 metres off the upper roof of a single family home build, resulting in a loss of consciousness and fractured back and leg. In September, a worker spreading shingles on a roof fell 6 metres and landed on a deck, suffering a large laceration to his head and possible spinal injury. In September, as well, a construction worker working in an elevator shaft was killed when a piece of equipment fell on him. A week later, a worker installing stairs for a store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto died after falling about 7 metres to a storey below.
These incidents are just a few of the injuries that have recently occurred in the Ontario construction sector. Critical injuries are up: 180 in 2014; 158 in 2015; and 206 in 2016. According to data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), traumatic fatalities in the construction industry are up: 24 in 2014; 19 in 2015; and 23 in 2016. (All statistics are represented in the fiscal year, running from April 1 of the year mentioned to March 31 of the following year.)
According to some members of the construction industry, the higher number of critical injuries is due, in part, to the ministry of labour expanding the definition of “critical injury” on Jan. 1, 2017. As a result, certain injuries that had been considered to be more minor were included in the critical injury stats. For example, prior to the change, the fracture of a wrist, hand, ankle or foot was not necessarily considered a critical injury. But the number of critical injuries logged between April 1 to Dec. 31, 2016 was 155, according to a Ministry of Labour data. That means in just nine months, the number of critical injuries in 2016 was nearly on par with all the critical injuries that occurred the previous fiscal year (158).
Ian Cunningham, president of Toronto-based Council of Ontario Construction Associations, says the most likely reason for an actual increase in injuries and fatalities is the high level of construction activity underway across the province.
“You can expect that the busier you get, the more hours worked, the more new people that come into the business, there is at least an opportunity for more accidents and injuries,” he says.
Apart from 2008, when the recession caused a significant rise in unemployment among construction workers, construction activity in Ontario has grown every year from 2002 to the present, according to Bill Ferreira, executive director of BuildForce Canada in Ottawa. From 2002 to 2017, the number of workers employed in construction rose from about 348,000 to 500,000.
In 2016, construction accounted for six per cent of Ontario’s gross domestic product, making it the province’s seventh largest sector. About 30 per cent of all work-related traumatic fatalities and occupational disease fatality claims for schedule 1 workplaces occurred in the construction sector, yet the sector comprises only 6.7 per cent of all provincial employment.
The rise in incidents and fatalities are more difficult to understand in light of the many measures the Ontario Ministry of Labour has taken to improve safety on construction work sites in recent years. These measures were, in part, a response to the 2009 tragedy at Metron Construction in Toronto, when a scaffold collapse killed four workers and left another seriously injured. These measures have included regulatory changes and legislative amendments for the use of suspended access equipment, drill rigs, ladders and fall protection.
In May, the Ministry of Labour issued a Construction Health and Safety Action Plan, some of which is aimed at increasing access to information about construction regulations, boosting awareness of new working at heights requirements and improving supervisors’ communication skills. The ministry has started to implement some of the plan’s recommendations.
In 2015, the government introduced mandatory working at heights training for workers on construction projects who use fall protection. More than one-third (37 per cent) of traumatic fatalities were due to falls from heights in the construction sector in fiscal year 2015, which dropped to 30 per cent in 2016. By Nov. 1, 2017 about 450,000 workers had taken the training. Falls from heights is the top cause of traumatic fatalities in construction and is responsible for 43 deaths from 2010-15. The next most common cause of death doesn’t even come close to falls from heights: motor vehicle incidents were responsible for 24 deaths in construction. Struck-by or caught-in objects rounds out the top three with 17 deaths.
Colin de Raaf, Ontario training director at the Cambridge, Ont.-based Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), says it will probably take time for the working at heights training to show results. The training has two facets. The classroom theoretical and practical knowledge training may provide a good basis, but then there’s the application: How training is applied to the local job site makes a big difference to how effective the instruction turns out to be.
“People believe the training is sufficient, but that’s not the case. It’s just a minimum standard. As it rolls out onto the workforce, as workers get trained and get out into the workplace, the workplace improves their standards and practices on site. Then, hopefully, we will see more engaged employers, more engaged supervisors and more engaged workers. And they’ll be controlling the fall hazards,” he says.
Moreover, he adds, the training is a three-year certificate, so workers will start re-certifying in April. They will have to do a practical evaluation and demonstrate they have retained the knowledge gained in prior training to be re-certified.
MANDATORY ENTRY-LEVEL TRAINING
A review into safety in the Ontario construction sector conducted several years ago under Tony Dean, then-chief prevention officer, recommended the introduction of mandatory entry-level training. Cunningham says it has not yet been implemented in part because, although stakeholders agreed there should be entry-level training, they disagreed on what form it should take.
“Employers and unions will differ on what they think the appropriate solution to a challenge in the industry is. On this one, an equal number of employers and unions landed on: it should be a one-day course that covers a certain minimum level. And an equal number of employers and unions were at the other end: it should be three or four days and it should be a PhD in construction safety,” he says.
Mandatory entry-level training would help to decrease injury rates among construction workers, says Bruce Lippy, director of safety research at CPWR — The Center for Construction Research and Training in Silver Spring, Md. But, in addition to making sure the training is of a high-quality, Lippy cautions not to over-estimate the effectiveness of worker training in preventing injuries. It’s important to remember, within the hierarchy of controls, training is an administrative control, down towards the middle of the hierarchy. While it is a necessary measure, one that serves to raise worker awareness of proper procedures and the employer’s responsibility to maintain a safe workplace, it doesn’t take the place of measures that allow for human error.
“I can train you to a job that is inherently dangerous. But if I put controls in place, such as automatic shut-off switches, I take the requirement off your back to absolutely pay attention every time you do that task — or you could lose a finger or fall. Then, we bump it up quite a notch on the hierarchy of controls. And training does not get us there,” he says.
Moreover, the effectiveness of training can be undermined by a poorly designed job, Lippy says. In such a situation, no matter how well a worker is trained, there is still a high risk. For example, in one fatal incident, workers were required to climb a ladder to get to a switch on a piece of equipment whenever it jammed, and then climb back down.
“They would do that four, five times a day, every day. Eventually, a worker fell to his death. That’s the kind of thing training is not going to get us past,” Lippy says.
CLAC has had experience with mandatory entry-level training across the country for workers in various industries, including construction, and these foundational courses have been very successful, says de Raaf. The union supports entry-level training but also believes training has to become a part of the routine for construction workers.
“We have been a proponent of offering training to workers before they set foot on site, or as soon as reasonably possible, whether that’s specific to the job site itself, to the company’s policies and procedures or to the industry in general. But we are also a proponent of continual training,” he says.
“Construction changes day to day, new hazards occur from day to day, so it’s about arming (workers) with the knowledge that they can identify hazards and, if they aren’t comfortable with that work, to inform their supervisor and to work with their employer to eliminate or limit those hazards.”
Supervisors play an important role in reenforcing the lessons learned during training and in reminding workers that safety is important to the company, says Lippy. Training supervisors on how to manage others and champion safety is a key element in effective worker training.
“It’s been our experience if you don’t reach those front-line supervisors, the foremen on a construction job site, it doesn’t matter how much training you get down to the folks in the field. The supervisors can nix it all by just focusing on operations and production,” he says.
Lippy’s research has found injuries are most common in small construction companies. In Ontario, the majority of construction firms are small businesses, with 45 per cent of construction workers employed by businesses with fewer than 20 workers.
Not only is it hard for governments and safety organizations to reach small companies, but they also have to change the mindset of the company owners, Lippy says.
“An owner may have done well as a carpenter, for example, but it has not been part of the process of getting to where he or she is to actually have formal safety training. And as they add employees, there’s no culture there to say, ‘I want my employees to go through the same training I did.’” he says.
The major initiative the Ontario Ministry of Labour is currently working on is an accreditation program. An accreditation standard will recognize employers who use health and safety management systems, says Cunningham, adding that research shows companies that effectively use these systems achieve better health and safety performance than their industry peers.
“It engages and empowers people at every level of a company. Even a front-line worker is empowered and can show leadership by demonstrating their own health and safety practices and also making sure that everyone working around him or her is doing the right thing,” he says.
To further encourage strong safety performance, in January 2020, the WSIB will introduce a new employer classification system, new rate-setting process and new experience-rating program. Safe companies will have lower premiums. The new system will be much more responsive to a company’s safety performance than the current one, Cunningham says.
“Under the current program, if you’re a safe company, you might get a rebate two years down the road. Under the new system, no rebates or surcharges, but you would get a change in your rate the following year.”
In December, the government passed legislation that triples the maximum fine against corporations to $1.5 million per charge and quadruples the maximum fine against individuals (such as supervisors and directors) to $100,000 per charge.
One problem with using financial penalties to encourage compliance, Lippy says, is that large fines represent small amounts to big companies. It is often more effective to publicize the infraction.
“A press release saying: ‘This company had a worker die on its site and we have cited them for this, this and this (infraction).’ The money isn’t the thing; it’s the damage to the reputation. That has an effect,” he says.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour seems to acknowledge that despite all of its recent measures, construction industry safety is not where it needs to be. In December, the government announced a review of the effectiveness of the working at heights training.
“In order to continue ensuring the safety of workers, the government needs to assess the effectiveness of the training and make improvements to the standards where necessary,” the Ministry of Labour said in a release.
The government is currently running a series of campaigns, including supervisor awareness and accountability, residential projects and ladder safety. Spokesperson Janet Deline said the ministry’s goal now is to continue carrying out measures that are underway and see whether they do, in fact, reduce injuries on construction work sites.
“We have rolled out a large number of initiatives in the last couple years,” she says. “And we need to focus on implementing those and on assessing their effectiveness before we take many more steps.”
Linda Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 issue of COS.