TORONTO – In a first-of-its-kind conviction, an Ontario judge has sentenced a construction project manager to three and a half years in prison for criminal negligence in an incident that led to the death of four workers on Christmas Eve 2009. When the scaffolding they were working on broke in half that day, the workers were not wearing safety lines and fell thirteen floors to the ground below.
The workers who lost their lives were immigrants from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Latvia. Alesandrs Bondarevs, Aleksey Blumberg, Vladimir Korostin, and Fayzulla Fazilov were four of six workers completing repair work to balconies on the outside of an apartment building in Toronto. Only two safety lines were provided for the six workers. The two workers who were attached to lines managed to survive the collapse, while the other four fell to their deaths.
The jail sentence, described as “historic” by Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president Chris Buckley, marks the first time that a jail term has been handed out to a supervisor after a worker lost their life on the job. Vadim Kazenelson, the project manager, was also on the scaffolding that afternoon, but managed to survive by clinging to a balcony.
He was convicted of negligence by a court last summer for not stopping the workers from proceeding with their work without an adequate number of safety lines. In addition to Kazenelson’s jail sentence, more than $1 million Canadian dollars (CAD) in fines have been handed out to the Metron Construction Company, its owner, and the scaffolding manufacturer.
The prison term was the first to be issued under the authority of Bill C-45, a piece of legislation that amended the Criminal Code of Canada in 2004 allowing for management liability in cases of negligence. It came about as a result of an inquiry into a 1992 disaster at the Westray Coal Mine in which 26 Nova Scotia miners lost their lives in an underground methane explosion. Management had been found partially responsible for the blast, but the courts failed to produce any convictions. The passage of Bill C-45 was intended to prevent such dodging of responsibility. It was spearheaded by a campaign of the Canadian Labour Congress and the United Steelworkers.
Like that earlier campaign, a similar effort was launched by the OFL shortly after the 2009 death of the four construction workers. Under the slogan, “Kill a worker, go to jail,” the OFL pushed strongly for a conviction in the Metron case in order to set an example for other negligent employers.
“I hope this verdict sends shivers down the spine of employers of Ontario,” Buckley said in a statement. While acknowledging the sentence cannot bring back the workers who lost their lives or reverse the pain of their families, he said it does have “the power to prevent other workers from suffering a similar fate.”
The judge in the case announced that his sentencing decision was meant to denounce the failures of Metron management to prevent “manifestly dangerous conditions.” He also highlighted the fact that the decision to work without proper safety lines had been made by a desire to complete work before a New Year’s Eve deadline and secure a bonus.
The Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, which represents more than 150,000 construction workers in the province, welcomed the conviction. But officials there said it could only serve as a partial deterrent because it does not go to the top of the chain of command within Metron.
Patrick Dillon, business manager for the Trades Council, said, “While it was the construction supervisor’s responsibility to ensure the workers had proper safety training and equipment, no one from the company was held criminally responsible for these deaths…not the owner, not the directors, and not any executives.”
Construction worker deaths and injuries have also been on the rise in the U.S. in recent years with the recovery of the commercial and residential building sectors. As in the Toronto case, most construction fatalities are the result of falls and are most prevalent among immigrant workers. An investigation by the New York Times late last year examined construction site deaths in New York City since 2013 and found most were “completely avoidable.” Top reasons cited for the fatalities included lack of harnesses and helmets, poor supervision, and a push by management for greater speed that resulted in workers taking shortcuts.
While Kazenelson and Metron’s lawyers are appealing his sentence, it is hoped that the precedent set by his conviction and sentencing will help improve conditions at construction sites in the future. With an employer facing criminal consequences for the first time, Buckley said a signal is being sent that “employers can’t chalk up a worker’s life as the cost of doing business.”
The OFL has pledged to continue its “Kill a worker, go to jail” campaign and will keep up the pressure “until the employers who put workers’ lives at risk to earn another buck find themselves doing hard jail time.”
Image: Ontario Federation of Labour.