Workplace Safety: a Contractor Loses his Construction Licence and is Charged With Manslaughter

Following a preliminary inquiry last April, a Montreal-area construction contractor was committed for trial on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death.

Initially he had been charged with criminal negligence only, but on the basis of evidence led at the preliminary inquiry, the manslaughter charge was added.

On April 3, 2012 in the Montreal borough of Lachine, an employee of Excavation S. Fournier Inc. was accidentally buried in a trench and died. He was found in the deepest part of the trench, at a depth of 2.6 metres.

The contractor, Sylvain Fournier, who was on the construction site at the time of the accident, was also partially buried. Rescue workers had to shore up the trench to prevent its walls from collapsing a second time before being able to extract the victims.

The provincial health and safety board (Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail or “CSST”) found that a number of provisions of the Safety Code for the Construction Industry (the “SCCI”) had been breached:

  • the walls of the trench had not been shored up, as required by the SCCI;
  • excavated earth had been dumped directly on the rim of the banks of the trench, whereas the SCCI requires that excavated material be deposited at a minimum distance of 1.2 metres from the trench rim.

In addition, the company had no prevention program or excavation protocol, and the deceased worker had received no training.

The CSST issued a statement of offence under section 237 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act on the grounds that the employer had acted so as to seriously compromise the safety of its workers when performing excavation work. The contractor pleaded guilty to that offence, but contested the amount of the penalty imposed, i.e. $57,293. That contestation is still pending.

Then, last April 21st, Quebec’s construction industry regulator, the Régie du bâtiment du Québec, revoked the contractor’s licence of the construction company because of its guilty plea in respect of the charge under s. 237 of the Act and also because, in the view of the Régie, the head of the company was not able to establish that he could carry on the activities of a contractor competently and scrupulously, given his past conduct.

It should be noted that it was the breaches of the SCCI and the plea of guilty pursuant to the statement of offence issued by the CSST that in the main led to the manslaughter charge.

For in the view of the judge presiding over the preliminary hearing, the manslaughter charge was justified, as the worker’s death resulted from the commission of illegal acts, namely the various breaches of the SCCI.

This appears to be the first time in Quebec that a manslaughter charge has been brought against a contractor following a work-related accident resulting in death.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court renders a guilty verdict against the contractor in this case.

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