(This story originally appeared in the June 7, 2017 Progress.)
When Sebastian Gomez Obando and Gerson Alvarado went to work on a construction site in Chilliwack on March 11, 2016, their wives and children likely thought it would be a day on the job like any other.
But when a faulty piece of equipment led to a concrete pumping truck to tip over, crushing the two men, lives were shattered. Alvarado suffered a broken torso, spinal cord damage, lung trauma and broken leg and ankle.
Obando was killed, one of 144 workers who died on the job in British Columbia in 2016.
A tragedy and one for which no blame was laid. That absence of fault points to a pervasive problem in the province, according to BC Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger.
“No one was found responsible for this death and yet clearly the report shows there was faulty equipment,” Lanzinger said in an interview.
“We say, when these kinds of things happen, employers have to be held accountable. To say we aren’t really holding anyone to account when someone dies, a person who had a family, who had children. I see these cases every week, of workers who die and we so rarely hold employers to account.”
A WorkSafeBC report obtained by The Progress through a freedom of information request concluded that a manufacturer’s defect was to blame for the collapse of the concrete pumper truck that killed Obando, a 24-year-old concrete placer, and catastrophically injured Alvarado, the 26-year-old foreman.
It was March 11, 2016 when the KC’s Pumping Services truck was in position at the 53-unit townhouse project in Garrison Crossing with the boom fully extended. At approximately 7:40 a.m., the front right outrigger of the truck failed, and the boom came down, crushing the two men.
WorkSafeBC began an investigation into the incident as soon as it happened. The final report was issued March 16, 2017.
As part of the investigation by WorkSafeBC, a metallurgical analysis was done on the collar plate that fractured causing the 2008 concrete pumper truck to tip over. The analysis found the piece of metal, which came from South Korea, did not meet any North American standards for steel. The manufacturer and distributor of the concrete pumper truck was MIK Tech Ltd. located in Langley.
The low fracture toughness was determined to most likely be caused from improper heat treatment by the steel manufacturer. Several welding defects were also found in the collar plate. The report concluded that a four-millimetre-deep crack had developed within 48 hours after the welding process.
“This initial crack, in combination with the extremely low level of fracture toughness of the collar plate, resulted in the collar plate’s failure at the time of the incident,” according to the report prepared by lead investigator Gary Anderson.
In the “health and safety actions” section of the report, WorkSafeBC published a bulletin with a reminder to the concrete pumping industry to: follow manufacturer’s instructions for operating and maintaining outriggers and booms on concrete pumper trucks; regularly inspect all welds and stress points on outriggers and booms; and position outriggers according to manufacturer’s instructions and based on soil stability.
The prime contractor, Algra Brothers Development Ltd., was issued a stop work order at 5:30 p.m. on March 12. To achieve compliance the order stated that an engineer had to assess the site and determine the extent of the damage and safe work procedures needed to be put in place.
“The employer must ensure that each building and temporary or permanent structure in a workplace is capable of withstanding any stresses likely to be imposed on it,” the order read. This was complied with and the stop-work order was cancelled on March 14, 2016 at 11 a.m.
There is no blame attributed in the report and no further enforcement of any rules or laws recommended, something that perplexes
“I’m not sure why we let employers and manufacturers off the hook,” she said, comparing the situation to a charge of criminal negligence causing death if a driver of a vehicle killed someone on the road.
So who should be held accountable in the Chilliwack case?
“By the [WorkSafe- BC] rules, it should be the employer,” Lanzinger said. “But I also say the manufacturer bears some responsibility.”
In response to a question of why no finding of fault came in the report, a spokesperson for WorkSafe BC said, in part, that employers in the province “are required by law to safeguard the health and safety of their workers.”
WorkSafeBC senior manager of media relations Trish Chernecki said penalties are imposed on employers who fail to take precautions to prevent injuries and who do not comply with regulations.
“Please note that penalties help make workplaces safer, but they never make up for workers’ work-related illnesses, injuries, or deaths,” she said via email.
And while there was no finding of fault in the case of Obando and Alvarado, even where there is fault, Lanzinger insists employers get slaps on the wrist.
“In many cases the employer is found to be negligent and issued a fine,” she said, adding that even repeat offenders are treated
“Why are we not shutting these people down?”
Not only did WorkSafeBC not place blame in the Chilliwack incident, there was no order for an immediate inspection of all booms produced
by the manufacturer.
“I would say, we just had a worker die, why aren’t we inspecting the booms to see what happened?” Lanzinger asked.
Regarding the concrete pumper truck manufacturer, Chernecki responded that WorkSafeBC does not have the jurisdiction to impose administrative penalties for manufacturer deficiencies.
There were 144 workplace deaths in B.C. in 2016. On Feb. 21 of this year, a 21-year-old worker fell approximately 40 feet off a tilt-up structure under construction at the Bailey Landfill in Chilliwack.
The WorkSafeBC investigation into his death is ongoing.