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Deaths on construction sites: should coroner's inquests remain mandatory?

The Ford government's proposal to make coroner's inquests into construction site deaths optional divides Ontario. (Archive photo)

  • Grégory Wilson (View profile)Grégory Wilson

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A recent bill from the Ford government aims to make coroner's inquests into construction site deaths optional starting next spring. Some players in the sector claim that this is an example of “good management of our resources”. However, relatives of workers who died on these construction sites are opposed to this.

This is the case of C. K. DesGrosseilliers. She remembers the exact circumstances of the death of her brother Tim in 2017.

A mechanic, the 52-year-old man was installing a specialized model of #x27;elevator. He decided to work under the scaffolding that supported the elevator motor, and it collapsed on him, she says, moved.

Ms. DesGrosseilliers knows these technical details thanks to the coroner's inquest which took place three years after her brother's death.

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The investigation is in my opinion a very important aspect of the process which can then play an essential role in keeping workers safe in the future.

A quote from C. K. DesGrosseilliers

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Ms. DesGrosseilliers notes that without an investigation, the coroner would not have been able to issue specific recommendations to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. These aimed to improve the safety at work of workers who have the same professional specialization as his brother.

It is in conclusion to this investigation that the jury presented 15 recommendations to seven construction industry associations.

I understand that the province wants to speed up the process, but we cannot do it by presuming what the results of an investigation will be or by grouping similar situations together, she deplores.

Bill 157 will amend certain sections of the Coroners Act.

In the event of the death of a worker on a construction site, it is always mandatory to notify the coroner's office. However, holding an inquest is now at the discretion of the chief coroner. It will also be possible for anyone to request one.

Additionally, new section 10.2 requires an annual review of all worker deaths that occurred during the previous calendar year and resulted from an accident occurring during their employment on a construction site. This annual review includes in particular an examination of each of the deaths that have occurred, a systemic study of all of these deaths, as well as the formulation of recommendations in order to prevent other deaths, we read in the bill.

The law has every chance of being adopted since the Ford government has a majority at Queen's Park.

< source srcset="https://images.radio-canada.ca/q_auto,w_700/v1/ici-info/16x9/danger-construction-chantier-toronto-4086.jpg" media="(min-width: 0px) and (max-width: 1023px)">Open in full screen mode

According to Ontario's chief coroner, 20 to 30 people lose their lives on a construction site per year in the province .

John Bartolomeo, co-director of the Workers Health and Safety Legal Clinic, said he was also disappointed to learn that the province was going to implement this change.

According to him, these investigations serve, among other things, to give bereaved families the opportunity to actively participate in the evaluation of an incident.

En changing the formula to an annual review, we take away this feeling of participation.

Mr. Bartolomeo would have liked the province to find other avenues to make the process more efficient, such as temporarily hiring more coroners.

The chief coroner of Ontario, Dr. Dirk Huyer, maintains that the withdrawal of mandatory investigations is a consequence of an increasingly safe culture on construction sites.

This obligation was created in the 1970s when the Health and Safety at Work Act had just been introduced, he says. Over time and through investigation, we have noticed that things have changed in the construction industry.

We have seen this commitment from employee and employer unions within the industry to prioritize safety above all else.

A quote from Dr. Dirk Huyer, Chief Coroner of Ontario

Currently, the province has a backlog of 130 investigations related to deaths on construction sites. Some families will have to wait up to 10 years before the investigation takes place. Additionally, 20 to 30 people lose their lives on a construction site per year. We must therefore find solutions to speed up the process, he believes.

Mandatory inquests often include lawyers and schedules, and require finding a location to carry out this work, recalls the chief coroner. It can therefore take time forcing families and other employees to wait.

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Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's chief coroner, says annual reviews of construction site deaths could help to put in place more general recommendations for the sector. (File photo)

Often, he says, the recommendations presented at the end of these investigations are similar. With the change in the law, the government could conduct an annual review of deaths on construction sites.

Families will still be able to request an investigation, but this will no longer be automatic.

We want to take a more global picture and understand the problems from a systemic point of view, concludes Dr. Huyer.

For Michael Smitiuch, lawyer and founder of Smitiuch Injury Law, the province is taking a step in the right direction with this bill.

We often perceive trends in fatality incidents. So I believe this is good management of our resources. In my opinion, it will be just as effective this way.

He maintains, however, that these measures will not solve the central problem: the lack of resources.

In some of our jurisdictions, we have a lack of safe courtrooms. We can also find mold or even a lack of staff in some courthouses.

A quote from Michael Smitiuch, lawyer and founder of Smitiuch Injury Law

In fact, the leader of the NDP, Marit Stiles, deplores what she considers to be a lack of measures to reduce the backlog of cases before the courts.

I cannot believe that the government dares to introduce a bill that does not address this issue, when it is the main concern of everyone that I know in the justice system.

With information from Jean-Loup Doudard and Sarah MacMillan

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