The Metron Construction swing stage collapse disaster and related legal proceedings moved one step closer to closure when Justice MacDonnell sentenced Vadim Kazenelson to 3 ˝ years in prison for each of five convictions of criminal negligence to be served consecutively. With the January 11, 2016 sentencing, the tragic saga of a quadruple fatality on a construction site on Christmas Eve 2009 has finally come to legal conclusion, subject to Kazenelson's rights of appeal. On June 26, 2015, following a trial, Kazenelson had been found guilty of all five counts of criminal negligence for which he had been charged in relation to the cause of the incident. 1
The trial judge said in the Reasons for Sentence: " ... a significant term of imprisonment is necessary to reflect the terrible consequences of the offences and to make it unequivocally clear that persons in positions of authority in potentially dangerous workplaces have a serious obligation to take all reasonable steps to ensure that those who arrive for work in the morning will make it safely back to their homes and families ..." 2
In August 2009, Metron was retained to repair concrete balconies on two high-rise apartments. As was its normal practice, Metron hired a project manager and a site supervisor to oversee the project. Mr. Kazenelson was retained by Metron as its project manager. Mr. Kazenelson owned and operated his own construction company and according to reports, came highly recommended as an experienced and qualified project manager.
On December 24, 2009, Metron workers were working on the 14th floor of one of the high-rise apartment buildings. At approximately 4:30 pm, six workers—including the site supervisor—climbed onto a swing stage (a suspended work platform) to travel to the ground. The swing stage collapsed. Four workers fell to their death, a fifth worker survived the fall but was seriously injured, and the sixth worker did not fall because he was stopped by a properly secured lifeline.
A post-incident investigation revealed that three of the deceased workers—including the site supervisor—had levels of marijuana in their systems consistent with recent consumption, and there were only two lifelines in the area serviced by the swing stage. It was also discovered that the design and assembly of the swing stage was faulty. The supplier had not properly tested it or obtained the approval of an engineer in relation to its design. As designed, the swing stage was not safe for even two workers to use. The welding was inconsistent and inadequate, and the welds were already cracked and broken prior to the swing stage's collapse. Finally, when it was delivered to the construction project, the swing stage had no manual, markings, serial numbers, or labels regarding maximum capacity.
On June 15, 2012, Metron pleaded guilty to one count of criminal negligence causing death. By doing so, Metron became the first Ontario corporation convicted of criminal negligence under the Code as amended by Bill C-45. Metron was sentenced by Justice Bigelow of the Ontario Court of Justice on July 13, 2012 to a fine of $200,000 (PDF). The Crown had requested that a fine of $1 million be imposed by the court, and appealed the sentence to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal found that the sentencing judge erred by relying on sentencing case law under the OHSA, and he failed to appreciate the higher degree of "moral blameworthiness and gravity associated" with a criminal conviction. Further, the sentencing judge erred by treating Metron's ability to pay as prerequisite to the imposition of a fine. On this point, the court said that economic viability of an organization may be a factor if the organization fills an important place in the market or is a significant employer. However, the prospect of fining a company into bankruptcy should not be precluded in an appropriate case.3 The Court of Appeal concluded that the original fine was unfit and allowed the appeal. It imposed a fine of $750,000 on Metron.
It is clear from the Metron saga that it is not sufficient for a company merely to setup a health and safety system and expect to avoid regulatory or criminal liability following a workplace accident. Metron appeared to have at least a partially functioning health and safety system. In the facts submitted to the court during the guilty plea, the Crown agreed that the project manager and site supervisor conducted periodic meetings with the workers to review safety requirements, including the use of swing stages. The Crown also agreed that Metron:
- required the owner of the apartment buildings to arrange for an engineering inspection and re-certification of the roof anchors to ensure compliance with safety requirements prior to commencing work
- was cooperative and complied with all requests made by the Ministry of Labour during periodic inspections of the site between October and December 2009
- arranged for the project manager, site supervisor, and workers to take swing stage and fall arrest courses
- had a comprehensive safety manual and gave a copy to each worker
- had its project manager perform weekly inspections and submit written reports to Metron
- held periodic meetings with Ministry of Labour inspectors
The Bill C-45 amendments to the Code have meant greater risk of criminal liability for companies and senior executives who fail to take every reasonable precaution to prevent bodily harm at the workplace. Metron is a clear example of how quickly this liability may materialize and how serious the consequences can be for employers. Employers are well advised to take this as a reminder to conduct a thorough review of their health and safety systems to identify and close, in a documented manner, any deficiencies that may expose the organization to liability.
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