News / Halifax

Half of workers in suburban Halifax construction sites not using harnesses

Nova Scotia Department of Labour inspections turned up 'pockets of non-compliance' in suburban HRM, bringing down the provincial compliance rate.

An apartment complex under construction in Halifax where a worker fell to his death in 2013.

Jeff Harper/Metro

An apartment complex under construction in Halifax where a worker fell to his death in 2013.

About half of people working at heights in suburban Halifax this year weren’t using proper fall protection, according to compliance inspections by the Nova Scotia Department of Labour.

Scott Nauss, senior director of inspection and compliance at the department told Metro that in 2016, fall protection compliance – whether people were wearing properly anchored harnesses while working at heights – was 75 per cent. In 2017, that number fell to 70 per cent.

Nauss said the drop is due to what he called “pockets of non-compliance” in suburban HRM – areas like Spryfield, Bedford, Hammonds Plains, Sackville, and Fall River.

“It’s to the point where if you removed suburban HRM, our compliance rate would be the same as it was in 2016,” Nauss said.

“I would say it’s around 50 per cent in those pockets of non-compliance.”

He’s not sure why compliance is so bad in these areas when compared to the rest of the province, considering training and equipment is more readily available in HRM than in rural Nova Scotia.

“We’re disappointed in that result,” he said. “We’re gonna dig deeper, we’re gonna try and figure out … and try and wrap our heads around why folks are making this bad decision.”

The numbers come from the department’s compliance blitzes, where safety officers go to job sites and inspect whether fall protection equipment is being used. The main goal of the blitzes is education, but Nauss said his officers have “zero tolerance” when it comes to fall protection, and they issue work orders and administrative penalties on non-compliant job sites.

The department started doing the blitzes in 2013, when three workers died in falls from heights on construction sites in the province.

“We really wanted to take action on that particular hazard and make some improvements,” Nauss said. “And it paid off: we had a period of 18 months where no one died as a result of falls at construction sites.”

According to the Department of Labour, no one died on a work site as a result of a fall in 2014 or 2015. There was one death each in 2016 and 2017.

“I think the changes are working, but one fall is one too many,” Nauss said. “We have to continue that sustained improvement.”

Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said there needs to be a culture change around workplace safety, and he hopes to work with the government to better educate employers and workers about safety.

But Cavanagh believes harsher penalties for employers would create the most change.

“The courts, in our view, do a fairly decent job, but often times the penalties that get imposed aren’t strong enough, and if they were stronger, that would go a long way, we believe, to make sure there was more compliance,” he said.

Cavanagh believes more workplace deaths should be investigated criminally as well, something provided for under Bill C-45. That legislation, known as the Westray Bill, was created after the 1992 disaster that killed 26 coal miners in Nova Scotia.

“There’s no sense in having a law like the Westray Bill if actually there’s no teeth to do any real enforcement,” he said, adding that criminal charges would be a better deterrent that fines.

He also wants workers to know their rights.

“Workers need to understand that they have the right to refuse in the workplace,” he said.

Nauss calls workplace safety a shared responsibility: workers are responsible for following their training and using the right equipment, supervisors are responsible for ensuring workers are following their training, and managers and owners are responsible for making sure there’s adequate supervision and training is provided.

“Working at heights without fall protection is very dangerous, and we’d like to see everybody in compliance,” he said.

“The last thing anybody wants or needs to have happen would be somebody gets up to go to work in the morning, and never comes home again. That's the bottom line of what we need to end," Cavanagh said.

To report a non-compliant construction site, call the Department of Labour at 1-800-9LABOUR.

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