Construction firms feel gravity of inadequate fall protection
Fines gravitated toward construction firms that failed to provide proper fall prevention and asbestos protection in 2012.
WorkSafe B.C. released its annual penalty report last week, showing fines imposed on employers that violated the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation and Workers Compensation Act at work sites across the province.
The organization imposed 260 penalties against 225 employers, tallying $2.9 million for the year.
The majority of fines – 85 per cent – were levied against the construction industry. Of those, 14 per cent were for violations in working around asbestos, but a far greater proportion – 59 per cent – were for inadequate use of fall protection.
“In the residential construction industry falls from heights is the leading cause of injury,” said Alexandra Skinner-Reynolds, WorkSafe B.C. spokeswoman.
In fact, falls account for 25 per cent of injury claims and 35 per cent of all claims costs in the construction sector. That translated into $192 million in claims costs from 2006-10. Those factors prompted WorkSafe B.C. in 2008 to focus 16 enforcement officers on fall protection safety violations on job sites with a special emphasis on steep slope roofing and construction in residential, smaller operations which seems to be where the most safety violations and injuries occur.
“Why it’s happening? We’re trying to find out,” Skinner-Reynolds said. “We initiated a roofing inspection blitz last summer that ran through the fall. We wrote orders where we found non-compliance, but we also talked with workers and employers during the process about what’s going on. We know that a lot of employers know the rules and they don’t use fall protection, so the feedback we’re getting is important and what we’re really trying to focus on is changing the culture in the industry.”
Skinner-Reynolds said WorkSafe B.C. doesn’t slap penalties on employers for their first infraction.
Several warning letters are issued and other methods are used to educate employers about proper safety procedures first. By the time fines are imposed an employer has usually shown a willful disregard for the rules.
Blake Erickson, owner of Nanaimo-based Erickson Roofing, which handles large commercial roofing and small residential jobs, suggests the culture needs to change on both sides of the fence to benefit employers and workers.
The company was not cited in WorkSafe B.C.’s annual report.
Erickson said it is far easier to maintain safety compliance protocols at large commercial job sites where there is a chain of command and constant supervision, but several small roofing jobs spread across town are much harder to supervise. Also, steep slope roofing is often performed by younger workers in their 20s who still have a false sense of invincibility and will often not tie off safety lines despite company training procedures, warnings and potential dismissal from employment for repeated disregard of safety procedures.
“We train them and make them understand that this is legally required,” Erickson said. “Then we have our own disciplinary measures we can take, which can lead to dismissal. It’s a three strikes, you’re out thing because the fines that come my way are enormous. Besides, we don’t want people to get hurt. It’s always a big concern.”
Workers must be tied to a safety line whenever there is risk of falling more than three metres.
“I’ve known guys that have been seriously injured from falls as short as six feet,” Erickson said.
Erickson said one approach toward ensuring accountability and adherence to the rules would be to fine workers as well as employers for safety violations.
“They’ll fine an employer $20,000, but they won’t fine a worker $500,” Erickson said. “The fines need to go right to the bottom, not just to the employer. If a shingler knew that he was going to get a $500 fine if WorkSafe catches them, I’ll tell you, they’re going to be tied off, but that’s not where we’re at.”
The maximum penalty amount permitted under the Workers Compensation Act is adjusted annually. The maximum allowable fine in 2012 was $596,435.35.