CLI EXCLUSIVE: Working construction is unsafe at any height


WORK CONSTRUCTION AND YOU KNOW DEATH OR INJURY IS JUST ONE FALL AWAY. Any time, any place falls happen: from the top of a high-rise building; from an improvised scaffold in the atrium of a monster home; from the top of an unbalanced ladder while putting up lighting fixtures; from a moving scaffold putting up drywall, or working outside a building on a swing stage. Falls happen.

New working at heights training is being rolled out (unevenly) across the industry and is supposed to make things safer, but serious safety issues remain.

Employers cannot force workers to work in unsafe conditions or with faulty equipment. But if workers don’t object, they get a lot of the blame and bear all the pain of the injuries that often result.

Workers are constantly blamed for doing things that “they should have know better” than to do. But the need to keep the job and the relentless pressure to “get the job done” leaves them little choice. Falls happen.

One of the worst fatal falls in recent memory came on Christmas Eve 2009, when a swing stage, suspended 13 stories up on the outside of a Toronto high rise, split in two and four workers fell to their deaths, with another badly injured. One worker was tied off properly. He was left dangling.

The supervisor managed to save himself. He grabbed a 13th floor balcony railing and jumped off the swing stage in time. He was found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.

‘We were lucky, I guess’

Vic Dias is in his early 20s, and he worked 3 years on and off as a residential painter. He witnessed one potentially serious accident, telling CLI that “given the oftentimes unsafe practices we used, we probably should’ve generated more accidents. We were lucky, I guess.”

He told us about the accident. “Dude was up near the top of a ladder that was rested on a windowsill two stories up. The base was on a wooden deck below that was slick from that morning’s rain and mostly covered in moss-like vegetation. No one had braced the ladder from below. The ladder slipped from under him but, thankfully for him he was quick and grabbed the sill before he fell too.”

Dias says that his crew used “thrown together scaffolding”.

“The sketchy scaffolding we’d make was usually in the stairwells of custom homes with high ceiling and would be made from a few ladders and heavy boards laid across the tops to from a walkway.

“I’ve even seen boards laid on top of a five-gallon bucket that was sat atop a ladder to add a bit of height. I cannot speak for the qualifications of a lot of my coworkers but, I myself didn’t have any Working at Heights training.”

Rules and regulations in occupational health and safety laws help. But only when they are acknowledged and applied. And, even then, a worker’s safety can often depend on luck.

Safety harness can be dangerous

Jennifer Rochford has been working construction in Ontario for 10 years. She says she was once in a fall and was saved by fall arrest. “I slipped off an ice patch. Thankfully I was tied off and was caught by fall arrest. I wasn’t dangling but I slid down a sloped roof and stopped before getting to the edge. Its scary because you build up a lot of momentum very fast.”

Even though they saved her in that accident, Rockford is not happy about the quality of the fall arrest equipment used even on large, unionized construction sites.

“Those harnesses and lanyards are such garbage. I’m glad to see more of the self-retracting lanyards lately but they’re still not coming enough. To look at almost any other category of harness, like rock climbing or rigging, you really immediately see how bad the standard construction ones are.”

Rockford says that in her working at heights training “we get taught that the bare minimum standard of harnesses we end up provided with will probably disable us if not rescued within minutes.”

The the rope which ties the harness to the anchor point, is often non retractable and is simply made of stitched together fabric that tears when a weight is applied, adding up to 2 metres of fall distance to the fall. In working at heights courses workers are told that the harnesses used will cut off circulation if the worker is not rescued extremely quickly.

Rockford also says that one scary part of using the safety equipment is in putting up the anchors to tie off to but add that this is kind of avoidable as a problem.

She says that the new working at heights training is better than the old standard because you are “actually required to put your hand on the equipment during training.”

Workers expected to protect themselves

Andrew Kwok is a new carpenter’s apprentice, specifically working in scaffolding. He’s worked for years in small scale renovation construction. Working at heights on big sites was new to him. He was very grateful for the hands-on aspect of the working at heights training and certification he got in Ontario.

“It gave me an awareness of the various hazards one could have at heights. Without the training, it’s easy to underestimate the potential dangers at work.” he said

The new working at heights standard in Ontario is a step forward, but is still very reliant on workers knowing about, and being ready to use, their right to refuse unsafe work.

Even though every construction site has a mandatory poster which declares that there shall be no reprisals for reporting injuries or refusing unsafe work, the fact is contractors can always find an excuse to get rid of workers who keep disrupting the work by demanding their rights.

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