Family seeks answers in working at heights death

Journal of Commerce  |  OH&S  | by SHANNON MONEO   | Mar 2, 2017

The brother of a construction worker who fell 35 feet says his death was not a freak accident. “It was 100 per cent preventable,” said Joe Huetzelmann. “I’m going to try to do justice for my brother. I have family looking to me for answers. They want to know what happened.”

On Jan. 10, 2017 Roland Huetzelmann, 51, was working on the third floor of what’s to be a five-storey condo in Saanich, near Victoria. The temperature hovered around 1 to 2 C and winds topped out at about 55 km/h.

Working as a framer on the 90-unit Shire project, Roland was believed to be wearing fall protection gear but was not tethered, said his girlfriend Corinne Desjarlais.

“He should of taken it upon himself to tether up,” she said.

According to a young worker at the site, who was the main eyewitness, Roland was working about six feet from the edge of the floor and walking near four sheets of 40-pound plywood when a gust of wind came up. The wind picked up a piece of plywood that pushed Roland through the handrails to the concrete below, said Lyall Sargent, owner of Sargent Construction, the Shire’s contractor.

Roland’s catastrophic injuries included a severed spine, crushed skull, broken ribs and pelvis.

He died Jan. 15 in Victoria after his family disconnected his life support.

The night before the fall, Desjarlais and Roland discussed the forecasted windy weather for the following day. Desjarlais questioned why work wasn’t stopped with predicted winds of 60 km/h.

“Roland agreed. But they’ve got their timelines. Somebody’s dead because of those deadlines,” she said.

Both Desjarlais and Joe said the push to finish the in-demand condos, coupled with a shortage of workers, meant crews were taking risks to get the project finished.

Sargent said the weather on Jan. 10 wasn’t exceptional.

“All of the media talked a lot about it being windy and dangerous conditions but it wasn’t that windy. The gust came out of no where,” Sargent said. “It was a freak accident.”

As at many sites, the guardrails were not created to be permanent, Sargent said.

“They’re not designed to hold a lot back. Roland hit them really hard and quick,” he said.

With 15 years of construction industry experience in Victoria, Sargent has never previously seen anyone fall.

Because the guardrails were not substantial, Desjarlais said the crew should have been wearing fall protection, given the windy conditions.

“I want the standards changed for other people up there, for the families of workers,” Desjarlais said. “When there’s a wind warning, things need to change. All the workers need to be tethered or the site shut down.”

But Sargent said sometimes harnessed workers can do more harm than good; each person has their own line so workers crisscross one another and get tangled. Trips or falls may happen.

And when workers are told to don the gear, they often ignore instructions.

“It’s constant babysitting,” Sargent said.

Desjarlais admitted workers face peer pressure.

“They don’t want to look like they’re the only one tethered,” she said.

WorkSafeBC regulations state employers must ensure that a fall protection system is used when work is being done at a site where a fall of 10 feet or more may occur.

One or more fall protection methods must be used, including that: Guardrails should be installed, whenever possible; fall restraint systems such as work-positioning devices that prevent workers from travelling to the edge of the structure must be provided if the use of guardrails isn’t practicable; and fall arrest systems must be used whenever a fall restraint system isn’t practicable.

“A whole bunch of people dropped the ball,” Joe said. “WorkSafeBC should be there every minute of the day. They made the regulations, the safety rules. They didn’t enforce them.”

WorkSafeBC has visited the Shire site roughly every four to five months since the project started in December 2015, Sargent said.

On average, 10 workers in B.C. die every year after a fall from elevation, according to WorkSafeBC. There are also over 5,000 claims a year for injuries from falls from elevation with the construction industry accounting for a major portion of the incidents.

Most falls occur when workers slide off roofs or are transferring between ladders and roofs. Many falls happen at residential properties, especially single-family homes and three-storey strata developments.

The investigation into Roland’s death is taking place. WorkSafeBC won’t comment on the incident. Investigations can take up to one year, said WorkSafeBC media spokesperson Trish Knight Chernecki.

A construction worker since he was a young man, Roland got his start with his dad, a stonemason. Roland loved to swim, ride his motor bike and bicycle and sit in the hot tub.

“He had an infectious laugh,” Desjarlais recalls. “He was so light hearted.”

Now his girlfriend wants Roland’s life to mean something.

“I would love somebody to say, ‘Yes, because of this, we’re making changes,'” Desjarlais said.

For his part, Sargent said he’s replayed the tragic day in his head many times.

“I don’t know what we could’ve done differently,” he said. “If a sheet of plywood had come up, maybe we would’ve shut down.”