‘This industry can’t be a free-for-all’: WorkSafeBC not releasing Kelowna crane safety report at this time

Journal of Commerce | Warren Frey  | February 22, 2024

British Columbia’s safety regulator will not yet release its completed report on the 2021 Kelowna crane collapse, despite calls from industry stakeholders and family members of the victims to do so.  

The Kelowna RCMP detachment released an update on Feb. 20 on the conclusion of a comprehensive investigation by its serious crime unit into the July 12, 2021 crane collapse which resulted in the deaths of Cailen Vilness, Eric and Patrick Stemmer, Brad Zawislak and Jared Zook.

A report has been submitted to the BC Prosecution Service for charge assessment for criminal negligence causing death, a release stated.

WorkSafeBC’s own independent investigation of the incident has been complete since May 16, 2023, but in a statement to the Journal of Commerce it indicated it would not yet release its report in order to not effect next steps in the legal process.

“WorkSafeBC will not be releasing its incident investigation report into the Kelowna crane collapse at this time to ensure it does not affect the charge assessment process,” the statement said.

“It is important to emphasize that, although the incident investigation report is not being released, WorkSafeBC has continued to incorporate key learnings from the investigation into our ongoing crane safety initiatives, including for tower crane operation, assembly, disassembly, and repositioning.”

Regulator has known investigation results for ‘too long’

BC Crane Safety executive director Clinton Connell shared the association’s reaction to the RCMP recommendation.

“BC Crane Safety is encouraged to see forward movement in this case, as it has been two-and-half-years since the initial investigation,” he said. “All industry stakeholders are awaiting the details of the final investigation report so that the facts are publicly available, and to determine what further steps can be taken to prevent similar reoccurrence in the future.”

Connell also pointed to changes within the industry since the 2021 incident, including pilot projects with the City of Vancouver to improve planning and processes around crane assembly and disassembly.

“These pilots have since become policy in many regions throughout B.C. and even outside the province. Stakeholders, including the local governments, WorkSafeBC, IUOE, multiple construction health and safety associations, and contractors and subcontractors co-ordinated their efforts to ensure high level planning and documentation are a part of every assembly or disassembly project,” he explained.

“Practices include onsite meetings with all related stakeholders, reference checking procedures, and assignment of supervision for assembly crews through the recently proposed changes to Part 14 of the OHSR (Notice of Project – Tower Crane).”

Connell added BC Crane Safety is waiting for the release of the investigation reports from the RCMP and WorkSafeBC before commenting in further detail.

Josh Towsley with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 said the crane collapse was a “stark reminder” of the dangers faced by workers during crane disassembly and other duties of the occupation in general.

“My initial thoughts, of course, turn to the families of the of the five people that died,” Towsley says. 

“But our industry in general are one step closer to getting the answers that you know that everybody deserves, on what happened that day and what caused the deaths of five people.”

Towsley also stated WorkSafeBC’s report should be shared.

“The regulator (WorkSafeBC) has known the results of its investigation for too long and to not share it with the industry and the families who lost loved ones makes it very difficult for the industry to help prevent and improve safety as it relates to workers that work near and with tower cranes,” he said.

“This industry can’t be a free-for-all”

Cailen Vilness’s father Chris wonders if his son was properly prepared for the job. 

“In less than an hour, Cailen got training before he went out there to dismantle the crane. Who is responsible to decide he was competent enough to be doing that job?” he said.

“This industry can’t be a free-for-all. Five people passed away including my son Cailen, due to a lack of training. This industry has to be regulated.

“This could happen to your own son and to your own daughter. It’s not just the people working around the equipment that are impacted by this work. It’s the people walking and working around these construction zones,” says Vilness. “Cailen, Brad, Jared, Eric, and Patrick all had futures and families. Everyone should care because their lives matter, just like yours.”

The fatal collapse has also spawned a number of lawsuits involving Stemmer Construction, the operator of the crane, and multiple divisions of the Liebherr Corporation that manufactured the heavy equipment.

In one lawsuit filed in July 2023, Stemmer is alleging Liebherr’s crane and related manuals may have “contained a dangerous defect, which led to the accident.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

The RCMP’s announcement comes just weeks after two crane incidents, one in Surrey on Jan. 30 and a Burnaby crane collapse on Jan. 26. It was also released the day before another fatal crane incident occurred in Vancouver when a load that was being lifted fell on a building under construction.

fundraiser for a proposed memorial for the Kelowna crane collapse victims has, as of now, reached $123,916 of its $300,000 goal.