Three Toronto construction company officials have been criminally charged in the deaths of four migrant workers and the serious injury of a fifth, who plunged 13 stories when their swingstage broke in half on Christmas Eve.
The charges mark the first time that company officials in Ontario have been charged with criminal negligence in a workplace fatality. The charges carry the possibility of life in prison.
Charged Wednesday (Oct. 13) were Metron Construction Inc., Metron Construction Corp., owner Joel Swartz, supervisor Vadim Kazenelson, and company official Benny Saigh. The company has offices in Toronto and New York.
The men all surrendered to police on Wednesday.
‘Should Never Have Fallen’
Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner said “numerous, numerous tests” on the scaffolding as well as extensive interviews with co-workers and previous employees had “led us to where we are.”
The workers “should never have fallen," Taverner said at a news conference. There are “obviously very strict guidelines and rules and Ministry of Labour protocols, and things like that, that needed to be followed, that weren't being followed.”
Nor were the workers themselves following all safety precautions, Taverner added.
A court date was set for Dec. 6. Swartz, 51, will plead not guilty, says his attorney, Richard Litkowski.
Litkowski said Swartz “did everything he could, reasonably, in the circumstances, to ensure the protection of the workplace and the workers," according to news reports.
The accident occurred Dec. 24, 2009, as six workers were repairing and restoring a high-rise concrete balcony from a 40-foot swingstage. As a seventh worker stepped on, the swingstage broke in two.
Aleksey Blumberg, 33; Vladimir Korostin, 40; Fayzullo Fazilov, 31; Aleksanders Bondarevs, 25, all fell to their deaths. Dilshod Marupov, 22, survived the fall, but broke both his legs and his spine. A sixth man, who had attached himself to a lifeline, was rescued.
In August, Marupov filed a $16.3 million lawsuit against Metron; Swing ‘N’ Scaff, which provided the swingstage; the apartment owner; and the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
The Ministry of Labour, in turn, charged Metron, Swartz, Kazenelson, Swing ‘N’ Scaff and its director Patrick Deschamps with a total of 61 charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Those charges include failure to ensure workers used proper devices to prevent them from falling, failure to ensure the platform the men were working on wasn't overloaded, failure to ensure the platform was designed in accordance with regulations, and failure to ensure workers were properly trained and following safety policies.
‘A Chill Across Corporate Canada’
The criminal charges filed this week are unrelated to the Ministry of Labour charges, and police said this week that their investigation into the incident continued.
The charges were made possible by a 2003 amendment to Ontario’s Criminal Code that establishes rules for attributing criminal liability to organizations, including corporations, for the acts of their representatives. It also establishes a legal duty for all persons directing work to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public.
Company officials could not be reached for comment Thursday (Oct. 14). Emails to the company were undeliverable, and the phone number of one office had been changed. A message to the other office was not returned.
Ontario Federal of Labour president Sid Ryan praised police and prosecutors for giving the law its first test.
“These charges will send a chill across corporate Canada. Now they know they can be hauled into the courts and sentenced if something goes wrong on their watch,” Ryan told the Daily Commercial News.
“What has been lacking all along has been enforcement, and there have been no consequences for killing workers, whether through accidents or occupational diseases.”