Workers claim hazardous conditions in transit tunnel construction
Overcrowding, overflowing porta-potties cited as risks
By Jeff Cottrill
Health & Safety
(Canadian OH&S News) — Overcrowding and poor sanitation have been endangering the health and safety of workers involved in the construction of Ottawa’s light-rail-transit (LRT) tunnel system, according to the head of the Ottawa and District Labour Council (ODLC).
Following a CBC News online story from April 18, which quoted employees anonymously about the working conditions, ODLC president Sean McKenny told COHSN that the workers had “significant concerns around trips and falls, significant concern around just the clustering of people,” as well as overflowing porta-potties.
“They’re not feeling as if any of their concerns are being taken seriously,” said McKenny, adding that the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) had issued more than 150 orders to the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the management company in charge of the LRT construction, over the previous six months. “There were 37 alone in one week.”
Calling the overall situation “dire,” McKenny added that the porta-potties had become “just so unkempt that a lot of the workers would not use them. Of course, they have to have a place to go. So they end up going wherever they can.” As workers relieve themselves anywhere in the tunnel, it has a detrimental effect on the air quality, which is already poor due to the air being closed off, he said.
In an e-mailed response, RTG communications director Kathryn Keyes declined to discuss any specific incidents or orders, but stressed that RTG held safety as a top priority.
“We continue to comply with all industry standards in terms of incident management and notification (such as notifying the MOL when an incident/injury warrants),” wrote Keyes. “All orders from the MOL are actioned [sic] expeditiously, and we work collaboratively with MOL inspectors towards acceptable resolution.
“Their visits to our active construction sites are welcome, as they assist us in improving safety at our worksites.”
McKenny said that there had been a meeting between himself, the CEO of RTG, the head of OC Transpo and John Manconi, the City of Ottawa’s general manager of transportation services, in March to discuss the health and safety issues.
“We’ve agreed to continue to have discussions to try and ensure that there is a place where, in fact, the workers feel that they are safe,” he elaborated.
But McKenny disputed the City’s claim that the situation was under control. “John Manconi’s public comment,” he said, “is that the Ministry of Labour is extensively in the LRT and this is a good thing. My rebut to that to the media is, no, it’s not a good thing, because that means that things are not going well, requiring the presence of the Ministry of Labour.”
Keyes countered that the LRT construction project had achieved better lost-time injury rates than the industry average for heavy civil construction in the province.
“At any given time, up to 1,100 employees (this includes subcontractors) are currently working on the project,” she wrote. “To date, over five million hours have been worked on the project.”
Last fall, work on the LRT system was stopped temporarily after some rebar fell from the tunnel ceiling, preventing a lift from descending and trapping three workers. One of the workers received a minor hand injury in the incident (COHSN, Nov. 15).
McKenny noted that workers on the project had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement before beginning work, preventing them from discussing such incidents to the media.
“Our media and our community in general are certainly paying very close attention because there is that lack of transparency,” he said.
“It’s not a question of workers wanting to go down into the tunnel and work on carpeted floors and receive massages. That’s not the piece. They just want to ensure that they’re safe.”