Thirty-six years ago, on Jan. 7 1981, four workers died during the construction of the Bentall Centre in downtown Vancouver when a fly-form used for pouring concrete broke away from the top of Tower Four.
Speaking on this year’s anniversary of the accident, the president of the BC Building Trades Union (BCBTU) says construction safety standards in the province have fallen.
“Construction safety standards are not what they used to be, particularly with respect to occupational health and safety education, training and committee function and participation,” said BCBTU president Lee Loftus.
The reason for the fall in standards is that the structure of the construction industry in B.C. has changed, Loftus added.
“The industry has restructured,” he said.
“It used to be that one general contractor was in charge of a project right to its completion. But now there are sub-contractors and independent contractors, often small businesses or individual workers, all operating with minimal oversight.”
For example, workplaces today with fewer than 20 employees don’t require safety committees and 80 per cent of the construction sector has fewer than 20 employees.
“Of the 75 employers in the BC Insulators Union, of which I am the business manager, only two have functioning health and safety committees,” Loftus said.
“It’s only a matter of time before an accident like the Bentall Four happens again.”
The solution is closer involvement of the workforce in health and safety, he said.
“We need to encourage the creation of robust health and safety committees that enable workers to bring concerns forward,” Loftus said.
“We also need to provide protection for the people who speak up.”
Loftus cited Washington State, Ontario and Alberta as jurisdictions with effective construction safety legislation.
“In 2001, when the BC Liberals became government, some safety regulations became broader and some regulations became guidelines, which are unenforceable,” he said.
Loftus’ complaints about low construction safety standards notwithstanding, according to WorkSafe BC (WSBC) data, the injury rate (number of claims per 100 person-years of employment) in the B.C. construction industry fell from 7.5 in 2001 to 4.2 in 2015.
Al Johnson, vice-president of WSBC prevention services, says there is a simple mathematical reason why the injury rate has gone down: There have been fewer injuries and a bigger workforce.
Today employees wear improved personal protection equipment, such as fall harnesses and safety glasses, as a matter of course.
“In addition, the construction industry has embraced health and safety and there is more of a safety culture now,” he said.
“And today there are more safety-related organizations, such as the BC Construction Safety Alliance.”
Johnson said there is more understanding and awareness of workplace safety among employers.
“They realize that health and safety is a priority that’s just as important as their other priorities,” he said.
Grant McMillan, strategic advisor to the Council of Construction Associations in B.C., said construction safety standards have been strengthened since the Bentall Four accident.
“B.C.’s safety record is not perfect, but the injury rate has gone down, as has the assessment rate (insurance premium rate),” McMillan said.
Today there are more inspections and more regulations dealing with safety committees and occupational diseases from such materials as asbestos and silica, he said.
“In my experience there’s been a huge improvement,” McMillan noted.
“There are guard rails on construction sites and more and better personal protection equipment in construction and road building.”
Apart from numbers, many construction organizations are committed to upholding strict safety standards, said Chris Atchison, president of the BC Construction Association.
“Any workplace accident is tragic, and the various construction organizations are committed to zero workplace accidents,” Atchison said.
“They have a common goal and they’re moving the industry in the right direction.”
Despite these improvements, a B.C. safety researcher and consultant said there will be more death and illness caused by exposure to asbestos in the future.
“Asbestos is a terrible problem,” said Terry Bogyo.
“We may have stopped importing and producing it, but it is in the installed base of buildings everywhere in B.C. and this country.”
Add to that marine applications, brake pads, gaskets and other industrial applications, and people have been exposed to this for years, Bogyo said.
“When you renovate or demolish a structure, asbestos from any of these sources gets released into the air,” he said.
“Unlike many other substances, this is not a ‘dose-response’ situation. Any exposure can cause disease 25, 30 or 50 years later.”