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Two Years After a Deadly Crane Collapse, BC Considers Safety Improvements

Why does it take deaths to bring change, says a grieving father.

Zak Vescera 2 Aug 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

British Columbia is considering new rules for tower cranes two years after a collapse in Kelowna killed five people.

WorkSafeBC has proposed new regulations, including stronger requirements that supervisors are qualified and rules that safety experts say could bring more inspections of crane worksites.

Chris Vilness, whose son Cailen was one of four workers killed in the 2021 collapse, said if the rules had been in place his son might be alive, and questioned why it took deaths to bring change.

“It should have been standard practice. It shouldn’t be a reactive regulation,” Vilness said.

WorkSafeBC announced the proposed regulatory changes July 14, two days after the second anniversary of the collapse, which happened during work on the Brooklyn apartment building in downtown Kelowna.

WorkSafeBC refused to say whether the proposed changes were in response to the 2021 Kelowna collapse.

But Clinton Connell, executive director of the BC Association for Crane Safety, says they closely follow one of four sets of recommendations that businesses, unions and other partners made to the province after the crash.

Connell says the main purpose of the changes would be to alert WorkSafeBC when such cranes are being used, which could help the agency proactively inspect building sites.

“The way I read this, it’s a notification scheme so the regulator knows when this kind of activity is taking place. It gives the regulator the opportunity to make sure all the right parties are involved,” Connell explained.

Frank Carr, the business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115, called the proposed regulations “a step in the right direction.”

But he said what the union really wants is a formal certification requirement for workers who assemble and dismantle tower cranes.

Currently, British Columbia requires certification for crane operators but doesn’t have an equivalent requirement for people doing assembly and disassembly work, which some in the industry say can be the most dangerous part of the process.

“We’re hoping it will make industry safer,” Carr said.

Behind the collapse

It has been more than two years since Vilness received a call from his ex-wife in Kelowna, telling him there had been an accident at Cailen’s workplace.

A 90-metre tall crane had suddenly teetered and collapsed as workers were taking the structure apart. It toppled into a nearby building, killing Brad Zawislak, who was working in a nearby office building. It was one of the deadliest workplace accidents in the province’s history.

Today, Vilness and other family members are no closer to understanding exactly what went wrong that day.

WorkSafeBC has completed an investigation into what caused that disaster. But the regulator has refused to release it because the RCMP are still conducting their own criminal investigation, which has no set timeline.

That has left families — and the industry more broadly — in a sort of limbo as they await the RCMP’s report.

Earlier this month, several lawsuits were filed in British Columbia’s Supreme Court, with various parties seeking damages and assigning blame in the disaster.

The widows of four of the killed men are suing Stemmer Construction, the Salmon Arm-based contractor that was operating the crane that day. Two of the workers killed were the sons of the company’s owner.

Stemmer Construction, in turn, has filed a lawsuit against Liebherr, the multinational corporation that designed and built the crane.

Stemmer Construction claims the manufacturer was aware of a “dangerous defect” that caused the collapse.

That lawsuit, like others, notes the particulars are not known “pending the results of investigations by both WorkSafeBC and Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”

Carr said the Kelowna disaster was one in a series of events that made crane operators, contractors and unions examine safety in the industry.

In 2019, a crane collapse in downtown Seattle killed four people and injured four others. That event, Carr said, led to serious talks in the industry about improving safety.

The IUOE 115 was part of talks with the City of Vancouver that led to a new checklist being used in that city whenever tower cranes are being put up or down, something said Carr had been broadly beneficial.

“If there’s an accident in Australia or an accident in Europe, the whole industry talks about it. It shakes us up. It reminds us we are vulnerable,” said Remi Coupal.

Coupal, a longtime crane operator and business owner, says he’s been climbing up cranes since he was a teenager accompanying his father to worksites. He remembers watching as Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum was built in the late 1960s.

In those days, Coupal said, there were only a handful of tower cranes in operation in Vancouver at a given time. Today, WorkSafeBC estimates there are about 350 across the province.

Coupal said the scale of that growth — coupled with the stiff competition for contracts — has brought the inherent safety risks of the job into focus.

“Our industry is very competitive, and I think that plays into how things get done,” Coupal said.

Coupal said safety standards have rapidly improved since the Seattle crash.

But like Carr, he says he’s in favour of a formal certification program for workers who assemble and dissemble cranes, though he says it will likely require “huge funding” from senior governments.

Connell said the roundtable convened by the safety association also recommended the government adopt the certification program.

“Operating the crane and assembling and disassembling a crane are two completely disciplines,” Connell said.

Meanwhile in Kelowna, the North Okanagan Labour Council has begun fundraising to build a permanent memorial for the victims of the collapse at a downtown park.

Called the RISE Memorial, the site is to feature a tree for each of the men killed surrounding a central plaza.

Labour council vice-president Kelly Hutchinson told The Tyee in a previous interview that the council wanted the space to both pay homage to the men killed and be a site where the community can come together and rebuild. The council is aiming to raise $300,000 towards its construction.

WorkSafeBC’s proposed changes to the regulations around tower cranes are open to the public for comments until Aug. 25.  [Tyee]

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