Safety issues raised, responded at LRT construction site

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rideau station cavern
Work on the Rideau Station cavern

How safe is the Ottawa Light Rail Transit (LRT) worksite?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) says workers on the project have filed dozens of formal complaints about reportedly dangerous conditions, including electric shock, carbon monoxide exposure and head trauma.

However, city officials, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) contractor and Ottawa Construction Association (OCA) president John DeVries says the safety is being handled in a responsible manner and there aren’t an inordinate number of incidents on the challenging underground site.

CBC says it has obtained documents through freedom-of-information law requests that reveal the Ministry of Labour was notified 56 times about injuries, incidents or unsafe working conditions on the project’s construction sites between 2014 and April 2017.

Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yusseff told the television broadcaster that he’s concerned someone could be seriously injured or killed. He wants the city and employer to take safety more seriously by adding more training and enforcement.

“Health and safety should be the top priority on this project,” Yussuff said in a broadcast interview. “These are not acceptable incidents that are happening on the workplace.”

CBC reported that the documents it has reviewed detail widespread concerns about the working conditions inside the LRT tunnel. The allegations include poor housekeeping, tripping hazards, poor air quality, improper traffic control, people working while impaired and worries over a potential structural collapse.

Descriptions of the site included “very unsafe job site,” and allegations the employer and workers are “not taking safety seriously,” according to the reports obtained by CBC.

“Word gets around quick that the (Ministry of Labour) has arrived and people start to straighten things out only while the (ministry) is there, when they are gone it goes back to lacking in (health and safety),” a complainant told the ministry, CBC reported.

One person expressed worry that “this construction project has the imminent potential for workers to be fatally injured.”

The labor ministry earlier this year charged the group building the LRT, OLRT Constructors, with contraventions to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. It faces the possibility of several million dollars in fines if convicted on all charges, according to CBC.

However, RTG said in a statement: “We take every safety incident seriously and we work to solve problems and make improvements to our work sites if required on an ongoing basis. There is no higher priority for us than sending workers home safely at the end of the day.”

The large LRT construction site has 1,200 workers at any given time working in parallel, RTG added. It says that all workers are encouraged to report any non-compliance with safe-work practices to their supervisor or at a joint health and safety committee. RTG said it works closely with the ministry to address issues and visits by inspectors help improve site safety.

These views are echoed by the OCA’s John DeVries. While he said he has minimal knowledge or insight into the project’s safety records, he knows that “world-class firms” with top safety protocols and management systems are working on the project and “doing their best.”

DeVries told the CBC that while the industry always strives for zero incidents, construction work has inherent risks.

“This is the largest job in Ottawa’s history,” DeVries told the broadcaster. “There’s going to be incidents,” he said. “We have incidents throughout the whole industry. We’re never going to get to zero. That’s a fantasy. Stuff’s going to happen — either human error or management error.”

Several firms working on the project, including EllisDon and companies doing shotcrete and excavation work, belong to the OCA.

“It is a high-risk job because it’s more mining than construction,” DeVries said. “It’s not your typical condo project going up or your museum being built, where it’s open air and green field.”

“There are hundreds of workers involved. There’s millions of man hours involved, working in basically a mine shaft with mud. (It’s a) tightly confined area, it’s going to be not everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s going to be a lot of issues to deal with.”

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