28 years of waiting for safer construction sites

Anniversary of Bentall Tower deaths highlights need for worker involvement in safety management
January 7, 2009

Twenty-eight years ago today, four construction workers plunged to their deaths when the flyform panel they were working on fell from the 36th floor of the Bentall Tower IV in downtown Vancouver.

Every year, construction workers, industry representatives, and family members of the deceased gather to honour the victims and focus attention on the all too frequent accidents, injuries and deaths that continue to occur in BC's construction sector.

Between 2002 and 2007, an average of 36 construction workers died each year from workplace injuries and disease. Sadly, that number reflects a longer-term upward trend in fatalities since 1981, when the Bentall Tower tragedy happened.

The Bentall tragedy has taken on special significance because it brought about the first and only provincial government inquiry into the construction industry's atrocious worker safety record and accident prevention practices.

In April 1982, the Construction Industry Safety Inquiry Committee produced 60 recommendations to improve worker safety. The recommendations covered many aspects of the industry, ranging from the inspection and regulation enforcement program (subsequently adopted by the Workers' Compensation Board) to the need for a joint labour-management Construction Industry Safety Advisory Council. Although many of the Inquiry's recommendations were acted on, many others fell by the wayside.

A key recommendation that has been ignored by successive provincial governments is the need for compulsory safety training for all construction workers. The inquiry concluded that there was generally a very low level of safety awareness, and that safety education and training had been seriously neglected.

Today a new study is being released that calls for compulsory safety education, as well as new policies that give all construction workers the right to be engaged in reducing risks on their worksites.

Such measures are part of a broader area of occupational health and safety called "participation rights" - the right of workers to monitor and be involved in the management of workplace hazards without fear of reprisal. Participation rights are important because workers must be able to do more than simply trust their employers to ensure safety - they must be able to constantly monitor their work sites, and act freely to remove hazards or put a stop to unsafe practices.

Currently, the BC Workers' Compensation Act is weak and ineffectual when it comes to participation rights. Safety training is not compulsory for all workers. Workers on sites with fewer than 10 regular employees have no formal right to be involved in safety matters. And worksites with fewer than 20 employees are not required to have a joint management-worker occupational health and safety committee.

In an industry dominated by small companies, declining unionization rates and sub-contracting (including on large sites), far too many construction workers go without adequate (or even any) safety training. When working in high-risk situations, or when safety rules are broken, many workers face an unacceptable dilemma: speak up and risk the consequences, report their employer to WCB, or ignore the problem at their peril.

The good news is there is no shortage of solutions. We conducted extensive research on successful initiatives in Ontario, the UK, the Australian state of Victoria and New Zealand. Evidence from these jurisdictions shows that when governments make safety training compulsory and require workers to be involved in managing safety risks, injuries and deaths drop.

Based on our research, we recommend that WorkSafeBC set up pilot projects to determine what European and Australian innovations in worker safety representation could be replicated in BC. The province should also change the Workers' Compensation Act to:
* Grant all construction workers occupational health and safety representation rights;
* Require that all construction workers and worker safety representatives receive WorkSafeBC-certified safety training; and
* Permit authorized union safety representatives the right of entry to non-union work sites to represent workers on health and safety issues.

Today, BC construction workers have an occupational fatality rate three times the overall provincial rate. Other jurisdictions have shown that construction can be made much safer. It is now time for the province to take advantage of the life-saving innovations that these jurisdictions have successfully implemented. Twenty-eight years is too long to wait.

David Fairey is co-author of Building a Safer Work Environment for BC Construction Workers, released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the BC & Yukon Territory Building & Construction Trades Council. www.policyalternatives.ca