Feature: The high cost of safety

The construction industry has come a long way in improving its safety performance — with significant reductions in workplace injuries and fatalities — but despite the progress, the fatalities that occur in the industry are still devastating, and more work needs to be done.
“The safety programs have gotten stronger and the amount of training available has gotten greater,” says Clare Francis, health, safety and environment manager for the Toronto District at PCL Constructors. He was part of a roundtable discussion on safety in Canada’s construction industry, hosted by Canadian Occupational Safety.

“But when you look at 20 plus workers dying every year in Ontario, that’s 20 plus too many. It’s kind of hard to say we’re at a good place in safety when there are still fatalities happening on our construction sites,” he says.

The unfortunate thing about all these fatalities, according to Patrick Dillon, business manager for the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, is that every coroner’s inquest following these tragedies has found these incidents could have been prevented.

Dillon says there needs to be a “real culture shift” in the way workers on construction sites are managed. He finds many major construction projects do not have a health and safety representative.

“The workers are not taking the health and safety representative’s job because if they raise an issue, they get laid off on Thursday,” says Dillon, 

In the same way the current system provides incentives for employers that achieve good safety performance, “workers that raise safety issues (should) actually get an incentive for raising the safety issue — not get laid off,” he says.


While many of the big construction firms have led the way for improvements in construction safety, a big part of the safety issues in the construction industry lie with smaller, independent contractors, says Dave Shanahan, project manager at Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

That, coupled with the transient nature of the workforce, makes it lot more challenging to provide and maintain health and safety training, says Dan Fleming, corporate director of health and safety training at EllisDon Corporation.

“There’s always workers coming from contractor to contractor, so it’s always difficult for the contractor to maintain a consistent level of training for workers,” says Fleming. 

Another challenge, according to Tammy Oliver, director of operations with the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA), is the language and culture barriers that exist in many construction sites. Many construction projects employ migrant workers from diverse cultural background and the work practices they have been used to may be different from the Canadian practice, Oliver says.

This is why it is important to integrate safety training with the workers’ skillsets, says Enzo Garritano, vice-president of research, education and specialty consulting with Mississauga, Ont.-based Infrastructure Health and Safety Association.

And evaluating those skills is also critically important, Garritano says. 

“Not only doing a written test — which is often difficult for those with English as a second language — but to see them do something to confirm that they are doing the right thing before they leave the door. That is the bottom line of what we need to do.”

In addition to language barriers, low literacy challenges also come into play, says Cordelia Clarke Julien, director of training and safety programs under the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s newly established Prevention Office.

“The overall reality is that there are a lot of different challenges within the sector and as a result of that you have to look at approaches that are diverse as well,” Julien says. “I can put a whole bunch of people in a room and train them to a standard but if their literacy levels aren’t there, then you also have additional challenges that you have to face.”

Panelists at the roundtable agree training is an important element for ensuring worker safety in the construction industry, and certain initiatives are underway to enhance worker safety training. The Alberta Construction Safety Association (ACSA), for instance, is looking at integrating a mandatory “culture-type course” for its National Construction Safety Officer (NCSO) training, says Tammy Hawkins, manager of learning services with the ACSA.

NCSO is a program run by the ACSA that combines formal training with the individual’s personal field experience. Having a NCSO certificate indicates the participant has practical knowledge in various construction-related health and safety management skills, according to the ACSA website.

Many training and educational programs on workplace safety are also being introduced now to workers at a younger age, some are even being incorporated into high school programs.

“That component is being introduced to people in the workforce at a younger and younger age,” says Scott Papineau, co-ordinator and training instructor with the Alberta Ironworkers Apprenticeship and Training Plan.

“That gets their mindset in the right gear but it’s the hands-on component; it’s the watching. Anybody who’s been in the education business knows that ‘tell, show, do’ — and that’s where you’ll see if all that work is paying off.”

Despite the many training programs and initiatives that exist across all jurisdictions, many industry observers have been calling for a standardized way of delivering training. 

“What is good training? What is the standard of training? Right now in many jurisdictions, including Ontario, there isn’t that standard of training,” Garritano says. 

Standard approach

Many of the panelists agree having a standardized approach to safety training for construction workers will be a significant improvement towards ensuring worker safety in the industry. The manner in which this national standard could be achieved is, however, the subject of much debate.

For one thing, moving toward standardized training needs a great deal of political will, which does not often come so easily.

“What is happening now is in our regulatory body, our government agencies… there seems to be a reluctance to set a standard and to (be placed) in care and control of that standard,” says Papineau of the Alberta Ironworkers. 

“Nobody wants to be the person to say, ‘It’s my standard, I’m going to be the one who looks after it.’ What is happening in our area is the contractors are taking that amongst themselves; they are all setting their own little playing field… and they are saying, ‘This is our standard and we’re going to adhere to it.’”

As a result, provincial guidelines — or the interpretation of them — may vary from jobsite to jobsite and the portability of both workers and contractors are negatively affected, Papineau adds.

He says a standard is necessary to ensure that whatever program is developed in any given organization will be accepted by other organizations as it conforms to a widely accepted standard.

Ontario is no stranger to the lack of political will as well, says Dillon. 

“The employers and the workers at the provincial labour management table in 1993-94 and from that day forward have recommended mandatory entry level training for construction. And it took four guys on Christmas Eve in 2009 to fall off a scaffolding to… move the political agenda a little bit. The political will has to shift.”

Several initiatives are underway in Ontario currently — as an outcome of the recommendations by the Tony Dean Review Panel — to move towards standardization.

Julien is tasked with moving many of these initiatives along. 

“We are working now with employers and labour to get those standards in place for entry level training for construction and pull the sector together,” she says. “Because of the diversity of the sector, some of those conversations can be challenging at times, but they’re still conversations that we’re having with the understanding that we have regulatory teeth and backing and it’s going to be mandated because… it’s time to get that moving forward.”

EllisDon’s Fleming says having training standards that are consistent across provinces would prove most effective, particularly for contractors that have projects in various jurisdictions
in Canada.

“We can’t have Newfoundland doing one thing, Alberta doing another thing. It’s a matter of looking at what the rest of the provinces are doing so we have consistency,” Fleming says.

As a national company, EllisDon has a large amount of construction workers who travel and work in different provinces and, because there is no standardized system, they have to get recertified and retrained in every province they go, Fleming says.

“So we need some kind of group that gets together to be able to have a consistent level of training,” he adds.

Legislation will be a big driver for standards to come to fruition, says Fleming, adding a piece of legislation that is equivalent across the provinces will be ideal.

Consistency across provinces in Canada is key, says Dillon. 

He says a national standard, when the various jurisdictions are in different stages and moving in different speeds with their regulations, may just end up being a barrier.

“If we bought into this national standard thing then the only way we can move is if we all move together,” Dillon says.

Other panelists suggest a national standard is not the only solution for achieving consistency. Julien says regulators can look at equivalency systems when drafting provincial legislation or regulations. 

Ontario is currently moving in this direction, Julien says.

“We are reaching out to the other jurisdictions to say, ‘What are you doing?’ We looked at the Newfoundland model with respect to the approval of training providers, so we are taking into consideration what our other jurisdictional partners are doing, what’s working and, frankly, what’s not working,” she says.

Some provinces are much further ahead than others in their regulations that implementing a national standard at this point could be a challenge. 

“So the question now becomes what is it that we can do (to make) sure that we’re sharing that information, working closely with the other jurisdictions but providing some flexibility for the mobility issues and stuff like that,” Julien says.

Collaboration among jurisdictions already exists in the industry, says BCCSA’s Oliver. Through the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations, which consists of the BCCSA, ACSA, IHSA and other construction safety associations across Canada, industry meets every year to share and collaborate on initiatives the different associations have developed in their respective jurisdictions.

These collaborations include aligning their respective certificate of recognition (COR) programs and their construction safety officer programs.

“There are difficulties — obviously, each province has their own regulations to follow — but the federation continues to work together to try and align all of their programs,” Oliver says.

Through the federation, industry has achieved a level of consistency with the COR programs, for example, says IHSA’s Garritano. 

“The COR program has 13 basic elements that all provinces share and must comply with, and then the specific provinces can go above and beyond that for regulatory issues. But it ensures that at least there is a framework there to become similar across the provinces,” he explains.

Trainer certification

Certification for safety training providers is another way to ensure workers are trained to regulatory standards, some of the panelists say. How to implement trainer certification that ensures the quality is maintained and consistent, has been the challenge in jurisdictions that have done it in the past. WorkSafeBC is one of them.

According to Oliver, WorkSafeBC has implemented trainer certification in the past “but they have moved away from going in that direction.”

“It became a challenge to continually try to maintain this list of training providers and do quality assurance, so they no longer do that process,” Oliver says.

Newfoundland, for its part, has implemented an approval process for training providers in fall protection training, Oliver says. Trainers are required to submit their fall protection training courses for approval by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador, before they are allowed to train in fall protection in the province. 

One of the things Ontario is moving toward — and learning from the experiences of other jurisdiction — is a standard for safety trainer certification, Julien says.

“We’ve had some conversations and lessons learned through discussions with B.C.,” says Julien. “From an Ontario perspective, we are certifying service providers in a standard that is being established. The chief prevention officer has that ability to establish standards for particular training so, with what we are doing, that is the one we’re going to be able to manage with respect to service providers.”

Regardless of how each province enforces it, elevating the level of the trainers is vital in improving health and safety of the workers on construction sites — it ensures quality and that training meets regulatory requirements.

“We don’t want to forget that the trainers are the ones who are transferring that information or trying to get that knowledge across the board. And if they’re not at a certain level then you may have a house of cards, as they say — we need to elevate that level as well,” IHSA’s Garritano says.