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Worker 'didn't feel safe' before scaffold collapsed

Labourers who fell to their deaths had noticed the stage that supported them was sagging. But did they know they could refuse unsafe work?

January 23, 2010
Peter Edwards
The Toronto Star

Immigrant highrise workers talked of on-the-job safety worries before four of them fell 13 storeys to their deaths on Christmas Eve, their widows say.

Vladimir Korostin, 40, a father of two, voiced his concerns about a scaffold – or "swing stage" – used at a highrise project just days before he fell to his death while repairing balconies at an apartment complex at 2757 Kipling Ave., said his ex-wife Irina Cherniakova, 37.

"He was scared to step on it (the swing stage). A day or two before the accident, he said the swing was sagging. He mentioned that he didn't feel safe enough at work."

Oksana Afanasenko, 27, the widow of Aleksey Blumberg, 33, said her husband also had safety concerns about the job, which involved repairing 252 aging balconies.

Afanasenko, who married Blumberg less than three months before his death, doesn't know if he was aware he had the right to refuse what he considered unsafe work under Ontario law.

Her husband was particularly concerned about a scaffold he worked on at the highrise job site, she said.

"He said the swing was very long and it looked like it was made from four parts," Afanasenko said. He was concerned it wasn't securely fastened together.

"It wasn't straight," she recalled him saying a couple of weeks before his death. "It was always sagging."

Both women spoke to the Toronto Star through a Russian-language interpreter.

The fall by the five non-union immigrant workers – one miraculously survived but remains in hospital – was the worst one-day construction tragedy in Toronto in 50 years.

It is under investigation by Toronto police and the Ministry of Labour. A coroner's inquest is also mandatory in workplace fatalities.

Joel Swartz, president of Metron Construction of Toronto, the builder at the Kipling Ave. site, said the time isn't right to publicly comment on the scaffold, which broke in half sending the five workers to the ground.

The Star asked Swartz whether the scaffold was fastened together from more than one piece, and if so, whether there were engineer's drawings to support it being pieced together. He was also asked if there was a cable in the middle of the scaffold supporting it; whether there were six or more men standing upon it when it fell and how many of the workers on the scaffold had lanyards, or safety lines, linking them to a solid structure.

"I do want to answer your questions and provide you with the detail you are looking for, however until such time as the various investigations are complete, including the company's own investigation, it would be premature to do so," Swartz wrote in an email.

"We expect the investigations will answer a number of the questions you posed and out of respect for the families, we will not speculate on the answers until we are certain."

News photos of the broken scaffold trouble Ken Wilkes, an engineer who has worked in construction for 42 years and who has been accepted as an expert witness in court cases. Wilkes said he wonders why news photos of the broken scaffold show only two supporting cables, and not a third cable in the middle. "Had there been a support in the middle, the chances of a fall are considerably reduced," Wilkes said.

Five days after the tragedy, the Ministry of Labour ordered Metron to provide a "copy of manufacturer's manual/documentation for the hydraulic swing hoist," and a "list of swing stage rental companies used on this project."

Afanasenko and Cherniakova said they have become frustrated while seeking answers of their own, pending the official investigations.

"Some people say one thing," Cherniakova said. "Some people say other things."

They said they have heard there were at least six men on the scaffold when it collapsed, including a Russian supervisor named "Vadim," who escaped from the scaffold when he heard it starting to break.

In one account that they heard, the scaffold held three men on it and stopped to pick up three more at the end of the workday, before it collapsed shortly before 5 p.m.

JOE MCDONALD, 46, who lives in an 11th-floor apartment at the Kipling Ave. complex, said he spoke with Blumberg and Korostin less than an hour before their deaths. Blumberg stepped onto his balcony to do some repairs, while Korostin was nearby on a scaffold.

"I said, 'Have a nice Christmas,' " recalled McDonald, a father of three. "They said, 'You too, and a happy new year.' I talked to them for about 10 minutes. They said they were going to go home for Christmas, finish up and go home."

McDonald recalled both workers were wearing safety harnesses, but neither had cables attached to them, as required by law, to catch them in case of a fall. The last McDonald saw of them, they were smiling as they said goodbye and rode up on a scaffold to the 13th floor.

"They said they were going to fix it up there and then go home," he said. "They were in a good mood."

Cherniakova said she spoke with Korostin by cellphone at 4:30 p.m., about 20 minutes before his death. "He said, 'I'm coming home soon.' "

Wilkes has questions about the lanyards – or safety lines – that should have been attached to the harness of each of the workers on the platform.

Toronto police Det. Kevin Sedore told The Canadian Press the four men killed were wearing body harnesses, but three of them did not have a lanyard to fasten the harness to a solid structure.

"The harness without a lanyard, even one with a lanyard but not attached, if it's not affixed to anything, it's useless," Sedore said. One of the men killed had a lanyard, or lifeline, attached to his harness, Sedore said, but it was not connected to anything.

Each of those lifelines is supposed to be attached to an independent support, with approved devices like a "rope grab" to prevent workers from falling any great distance, Wilkes said.

"The scaffold work is not dangerous if it's done right," Wilkes said.

Dilshod Marupov, 21, the lone survivor of the accident, was wearing a safety harness and lanyard, but Cherniakova said she heard from workers that it was improperly fastened. He was transferred last week from the intensive care ward at Sunnybrook hospital to West Park Healthcare Centre, where he'll undergo rehabilitation for his injured left heel, knees and back. He's expected eventually to be able to walk again, said Afanasenko, who has visited him in hospital.

Marupov had been helping support his family in Uzbekistan.

"He looks like a baby lying there, so helpless," Afanasenko said, adding she counselled him, "You have to be strong. You have parents to look after."

Afanasenko and Cherniakova said they hope other undocumented workers who know about the accident don't go silent in order to stay in Canada and on the job.

Refugee claimants have the right to apply for work permits to work in Canada legally, but Afanasenko said many of them are afraid of contact with officials.

"A lot of young men working on construction now are without documents and when something like this happens, they're afraid to say the truth because they're afraid that immigration will deport them back to their country," said Afanasenko, whose husband was a refugee claimant from Ukraine.

Cherniakova and her daughters Daniela, 7, and Inna, 14, are also refugee claimants who face an immigration hearing next month.

Fayzullo Fazilov, 31, another of the men killed in the fall, was also a refugee claimant. He had been supporting a son, daughter, wife, four sisters and elderly parents in Uzbekistan.

Aleksanders Bondarevs, 25, the youngest of the men killed, was originally from Latvia. He had lived in Canada for seven years, but hadn't taken out citizenship. He had started work on the Kipling Ave. site three weeks before the accident and left behind his family and longtime girlfriend in Canada. He was the only one of the five who was a landed immigrant.

Swartz, Metron Construction's president, would not comment on the makeup of the workforce at the Kipling Ave. site, saying: "Metron does not discuss personnel matters or personal information with anyone outside the organization."

Wilkes said he'd like to see all workers who do jobs on swing stages get at least a day in training. Afanasenko said she never saw her husband bring any safety manuals home or heard him talk about safety training. Her husband had very limited reading ability in English, she added, so even if he had been given a Construction Association of Ontario manual he would have had difficulty understanding it.

"Although the training book is written in English, it still remains the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that the workers under his direction not only receive the training, but that they also clearly understand it and can demonstrate their knowledge of the training," Wilkes said. "This training should be carried out by personnel skilled in the use of both scaffold equipment and the fall protection devices being used in conjunction with the scaffold equipment."

Government documents obtained by the Star show Metron was ordered on Dec. 29 to provide "training records for fall protection training of workers," and of any minutes of health and safety meetings. Swartz told the Star his company has never been charged with any violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in its 23 years of operation.

Afanasenko said her husband was excited to start the job, a few days after their marriage on Oct. 2. "He had just gotten married. He had not worked for two months prior to this job, so he was very happy."

He was particularly excited about a paycheque that came to about $20 an hour, about $12 less than the going rate for unionized labourers. "In Ukraine, the pay is much less," Afanasenko said. "They probably wouldn't get $20 a day."

Not long after Blumberg started work, things shut down at the Kipling Ave. job site, after a visit from a provincial safety inspector Oct. 20.

Work resumed on Oct. 23, after Metron complied with the work order. Among the orders obtained by the Star was a requirement for Metron to "provide wire mesh securely fastened in place from the toe-board to the top rail of the guardrails of the swing stages," and another to "provide guardrails near the existing guardrail near the boiler room to get access to the swing stages installation at roof."

Afanasenko said her husband didn't seem too troubled by the work shutdown. "He told me that there was an inspection. That somebody came to check. But nothing important. He didn't really talk about the job because he didn't want me to worry about him. He was very protective."

In the two months before the tragedy, the Ministry of Labour conducted nine field visits to 2757 Kipling Ave. Work was temporarily halted again on Dec. 17, when an inspector ordered Metron to "provide guardrails to work platform being used for access to swing stage near the parking garages." That order was lifted that same day.

Before getting the job with Metron, Blumberg had a varied work history, including two years as a sailor in a Russian submarine. In Canada, he had done home renovation work on private homes, but nothing involving heights, said Afanasenko, herself a landed immigrant from Kazakhstan.

Swartz declined to comment on whether the workers were employees of Metron or independent contractors. Independent contractors are responsible for providing their own Workplace Safety and Insurance Board coverage, which saves an employer about 7 1/2 per cent on payroll in a business where profit margins are often just 2 or 3 per cent. It's also a way for workers to avoid paying taxes.

A SERIES OF REPORTS by the Ontario Construction Secretariat have attempted to draw attention to the role of independent contractors in the province's construction industry, and how the widespread practice often undermines health and safety on the job.

The secretariat, a partnership between employers, unions and government, noted in an April 2008 report that about 84,500 workers – or 22 per cent of the province's construction workforce – are part of the underground economy. Undocumented workers often believe that working for independent operators means protection from immigration officers, the report continues.

The secretariat's 2008 findings mirrored ones from its March 2004 report, which concluded: "The underground economy erodes occupational health and safety, undermines the apprenticeship system and makes a mockery of the principle of a fair, level playing field."

Afanasenko and Cherniakova hope something can be built from the four deaths to improve safety for all construction workers, including undocumented ones.

Afanasenko said she and her husband never talked about such things in their short, sweet marriage. "When he came home he was tired. We cherished every moment together, tried to talk about other things. His friends said he always wanted to come home. They always joked, 'Of course, you have a young wife at home waiting for you.' "