On the morning of July 12, a crane collapsed at a construction site in downtown Kelowna, British Columbia, killing 5 people. Four of the victims were working on the construction site of a future 25-story residential tower with 178 units when the crane arm hit the ground.
The dead workers were identified by family and friends as brothers Eric Stemmer, superintendent, and Patrick Stemmer, crane operator, family-owned Stemmer Construction, crane boom Jared Zook, 32, and Cailen Vilness, 23. The fifth victim, civil engineer-technologist Brad Zawislak worked in a neighboring office building.
A police spokesman told the media that the crane was being dismantled when “something disastrous” happened. “It’s wrong. Something is wrong. It should never have happened.” Because of the endangerment of the population, many buildings next to the construction site had to be evacuated for over a week while the rest of the crane was dismantled.
Five people were killed in the crane collapse. (Tweet)
The death of the five and the cause of the crane collapse are now the subject of three separate investigations by the BC Coroners Service, the RCMP and WorkSafeBC.
The erection and dismantling of cranes is usually carried out under tight deadlines in busy and overcrowded areas, which makes it an extremely dangerous job. Each section of a crane can weigh tens of thousands of pounds and is often hundreds of feet off the ground. The integrity of the equipment itself can also be compromised by incorrect manufacture, age, and extreme weather conditions.
There are 80 active tower cranes in use in the city of Vancouver and another 200 across the province. While tower crane operators require mandatory certification in Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba, British Columbia does not. There is no certification for workers erecting and dismantling cranes anywhere in the country.
According to British Columbia, these tower cranes must be “qualified” for erection and dismantling. However, there are no specifications as to which qualifications are required. The province only stipulates that people who assemble and dismantle cranes must follow the instructions of the crane manufacturer or a specialist engineer if the installation deviates from the manufacturer’s instructions.
In 2020 British Columbia experienced a massive construction boom. By March of this year, the value of planned and ongoing major projects had risen to a whopping 349 billion US dollars.
These projects, many of which were fueled by speculation and an exodus from the big cities, have been a boon to the construction industry in smaller communities. In Kelowna, a city of 130,000 in the Okanagan Valley, construction is currently at record levels, with permits averaging $ 200 million per month and home sales up 253 percent from 2020-story condos – four times what was previously allowed Height – that would be Kelowna’s tallest building.
In these conditions, crane accidents are becoming increasingly common across Canada and south of the border. In 2019, a crane collapsed during a hurricane in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. Just days before the Kelowna tragedy, a service crane collapsed on a residential tower in Toronto, Ontario, where 208 construction cranes are currently in use. Remarkably, there were no injuries in either case.
Across the border in the US there is an average of 42 crane-related deaths each year. In April 2019, a tower crane used to build a Google office building in Seattle, Washington fell on the street below, killing four people and injuring four others.
Municipalities that generate high income from the issuing of permits have no interest in tightening regulations to improve occupational safety.
In the wake of the Kelowna tragedy, various construction unions are calling for improved safety regulations, including mandatory training and certification of workers who assemble and dismantle cranes. “We are deeply saddened by this catastrophic accident,” said Frank Carr, International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 115 Business Manager. “We have to do everything we can to ensure that something like this never happens again.”
Carr’s statement obliges the IUOE, which represents heavy machinery operators and others in the provincial construction industry, to do absolutely nothing. Insidious working conditions have been known in the industry for decades. In 2019, it accounted for 33 of the 203 officially recognized workplace deaths in BC, the largest of any industry.
Carr himself claims that his union has been campaigning for adequate training and certification of crane workers for two decades. This also applies to the past four years, when the union-backed, supposedly “worker-friendly” NDP formed the provincial government and did nothing to improve crane safety.
Across Canada, construction unions have played a vital role in suppressing workers’ struggles over health and safety issues in the workplace. When crane operators in Quebec staged a wildcat strike in June 2018 to oppose the provincial government’s plans to deregulate their trade – including drastically reducing the training hours required to be certified to operate large cranes – the bureaucrats did from FTQ Construction, the wing of the Quebec Federation of Labor, were pale. Together with the then liberal provincial government, they threatened the crane operators with severe reprisals if they were not to return to their jobs immediately. Subsequently, FTQ Construction and the other construction unions in Quebec accepted changes to crane operator certification requirements that were only minor changes from the government’s original plan.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, unions worked with builders and BC and other provincial governments to label virtually all construction sites “essential” to keep workers in the workplace. Major outbreaks have occurred on construction sites across the country, with workers reporting working in nefarious conditions that put them at high risk of infection.
The liberal federal government is also complicit in the dangerous working conditions in the construction sector. It has taken steps to further relax safety regulations and remove government oversight. The Liberals’ 2018 budget included funds to review regulations that were creating ‘bottlenecks for economic growth and innovation’, including in the infrastructure sector. The real aim of the deregulation drive is to abolish worker protection and to disregard criminally negligent employers, to facilitate their increased exploitation of workers and to increase the likelihood of industrial accidents like last month’s tragedy in Kelowna.
The construction industry employs over 1.4 million people in Canada and generates approximately $ 141 billion in economic activity annually. Canada-based multinational construction company PCL raised $ 8.4 billion last year. But as the cost of wood and metal products and other building materials doubles and even triples this year, developers and contractors are striving to cut labor costs through accelerated production and by workers who are often inexperienced, ill-trained and precariously employed. The industry is increasingly relying on migrant workers – who make up a quarter of Canada’s construction workers. They are often forced to work under the table and their work permit usually depends on keeping their job with their current employer. This makes it practically impossible for migrant workers to question poor working conditions, even if they are life threatening.
Safe conditions for construction workers will only exist if the construction industry is taken out of the hand of speculators and developers motivated solely by obscene private profit and placed under the control of the working class, the only social force that can organize society’s economic resources and production capacity safely and rationally in the service of social needs.
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