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Manitoba government, labour team up for road safety

(Canadian OH&S News)


(Canadian OH&S News)

Following a 2010 accident that killed a 21-year-old road worker — and the case’s controversial court verdict in June of this year — the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) is getting together with provincial government ministers next month to discuss ways of making construction zones on highways safer.

“I’ve had a brief meeting with the government, and there’s some commitment,” said MFL president Kevin Rebeck. “We’ve been advocating for some time for changes.”

The upcoming meeting on Sept. 16 is in response to Rebeck’s open letter demanding improvement to the province’s safety laws and regulations for highway construction workers. The letter, published on Aug. 15, was addressed to Jennifer Howard, Manitoba’s minister of family services and labour. Rebeck will be meeting with Howard and Manitoba justice minister Andrew Swan.

“She gets what we’re driving at,” Rebeck said, referring to Howard. “She thinks there’s room to make some adjustments there. She’s checking to see if there needs to be a legislative adjustment, or a regulatory one, and wants some clarity and better understanding herself — and to share with us what the current practice is now and how we can make it better and more efficient.”

On June 28, 79-year-old Michael Blostein was found not guilty of dangerous driving in the death of flag worker Brittany Murray, whom Blostein had struck down in a construction zone near Winnipeg on Oct. 18, 2010. Blostein had been driving 112 kilometres per hour (km/h) in a 60 km/h zone and later claimed that he had not seen any workers until right before the accident.

“The judge said that although Blostein was doing approximately 112 kilometres an hour, that isn’t out of the ordinary of what a regular, ordinary person would be doing, which we think is ludicrous,” said Rebeck. “If a judge can interpret a law that way, the law needs changing.”

Among the changes for which Rebeck is lobbying are: changes in the speed limits and clearer indications of where they begin; stronger enforcement of safety rules; protective barriers for workers in areas with high-speed traffic or icy roads; safer positioning for flaggers; and safe, minimum distances between workers and signs indicating road construction.

Rebeck has been working closely with Murray’s family to promote these changes. Neil Murray, the victim’s father, blames the tragedy largely on vague signage at Manitoba construction sites, stating “Maximum 60 [km/h] when passing workers.

“The ambiguity of the sign didn’t necessitate the driver to slow down to some speed other than 112,” Murray said. “He didn’t see any workers, so ‘when passing workers’ didn’t apply. People don’t have a clear definition of what that means, and it’s too much to decide and process when you’re travelling at 90, 60, 100 or whatever the speed limit is.”

Glen Black, the director of the WORKSAFELY program with the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, applauds MFL’s efforts to make construction employees safer on the province’s highways.

“We want to ensure that those workers have a degree of safety that would be comparable to your workplace or my workplace,” said Black. “The province, by enacting legislation to give some greater visibility to a flag person, is to be commended,” he said.

“But we’ve got to start educating the motoring public more to ensure that they understand that construction season is among us — and not only construction workers but emergency workers, tow-truck operators, emergency-response people, ambulances, the fire department, the police. All of these people — that’s their workplace.”

Rebeck pinpointed the lack of clarity as a huge part of the problem. “People want to do what’s right, but they could use some better clarity,” he said. “Rather than having people who should be paying better attention to the road be responsible for looking around to see if workers are present, why don’t we just make that clear for them right up front?” he asks.

Both Rebeck and Murray agree that the goal is not to punish Blostein on the appeal, but to use this tragedy to improve construction safety on Manitoba highways.

“We just want to make a difference here,” Murray said. “We’re raising awareness, and we really are strong on this, because we don’t want our daughter’s death to be in vain. We want it to make a difference and be for some reason.”