Picture Courtesy: National Post
It was all over the news. A tragic scaffolding accident that occurred on Christmas Eve, 2009, and took the lives of four migrant workers and severely injured another. Finally, there’s been a partial resolution, but not everyone is happy about it.
On Friday, June 13, the Ontario Court of Justice, Metron Construction Corporation pleaded guilty to criminal negligence resulting in death and were hit with a $200,000 fine. The amount of the fine, combined with the $50,000 victim fine surcharge, is not only the largest criminal fine for corporate negligence in Canadian history, but it’s also double the previous largest fine in Ontario since Bill C45 amended the criminal code in 2004. It also marks the first corporate guilty plea in Ontario history. In addition to the fine against the company, Metron’s president, Joel Swartz, was also hit with a $90,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to four charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). That fine constitutes the highest fine ever imposed against an individual convicted of an offence under the OHSA.
Yet, while the fines were the biggest ever, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) says it is not enough.
“This is a disgraceful ruling,” said Sid Ryan, president of the OFL, as he stood on the steps of Toronto’s Old City hall after the ruling. “It means that in this province, a life is worth $50,000.” The OFL fears that, at that level of fine some companies will simply write such accidents off as the cost of doing business. The Crown had originally proposed a $1 million fine, and OFL officials suggested that, if the Crown doubted the company’s ability to pay, perhaps Swartz should spend some time in jail.
The Christmas Eve 2009 accident came as six migrant workers were renovating a building from a suspended work platform at a construction project on Kipling Ave in Toronto. All six workers were working from the swing stage, which was rated for a maximum of two workers or 450 kg by the manufacturer. When a seventh worker attempted to join them, the stage split in the middle, and collapsed, causing five workers to plummet 13 storeys, killing four and seriously injuring another. The sixth worker was the only one not seriously injured, most likely because he was the only worker properly using fall protection, so he was held in place by the lifeline and eventually pulled to safety.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour investigation found that the deceased and injured workers had not been trained in the proper use of fall protection and had not been properly tied off to a lifeline. To make matters worse, the MoL also determined that the swing stage had been overloaded, although they also found that Ottawa-based rental company Swing ‘N’ Scaff had not only provided the platform, they had built the stage themselves, and that the stage had not been properly constructed and arrived without any manual, instructions or product information, so the scaffolding itself was potentially hazardous.
For his part, Joel Swartz pleaded guilty to failing, as a director, to take all reasonable care to ensure that workers did not use a defective or hazardous swing stage; that the swing stage was not loaded beyond the capacity limits set out by the manufacturer; that workers were adequately trained in the use of fall protection by a competent person and; that the company prepared and maintained written training and instruction records for each worker.
Several facts that were heard by the court are thought to have influenced the decision to reduce the fines, including that Metron had taken the several steps “inconsistent with wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers on the project,” including their cooperation and compliance with all requests from the Ministry of Labour inspector; arranging for the project manager and the site supervisor, as well as several workers, take training courses on the safe and proper use of suspended platforms, as well as fall arrest training.
There are still other defendants facing charges as a result of this incident, according to the Ministry of Labour, so there could still be more fines coming.