By Jenn Watt
Published March 27, 2018
John Francis Smith’s brother Terry Smith was the first witness called in the coroner’s inquest on Wednesday morning. Asked to tell the story of John’s death on July 31, 2013, Terry looked like he had the weight of the world pressing down on him as he spoke.
John died after he fell from the roof of a cottage under construction on Percy Lake. Both brothers were on the job site that day and neither of them wore fall prevention equipment.
Terry’s answers were short and frequently painful.
The day had been foggy and the plywood sheeting on the roof was slippery, he said.
“I actually told him to tie himself off,” he told the inquest.
Then he recalled hearing John losing his balance and falling 21 feet to the ground.
He died of “multiple trauma” at the Haliburton Family Medical Centre hours after his fall.
The mandate of a coroner’s inquest, which is required in cases of deaths on construction sites, was to ascertain the basic facts behind the death and offered a jury the opportunity to make recommendations to avoid future tragedy.
Over two days, the inquest heard that safety equipment was frequently ignored on this job site and that there wasn’t a safety rep available. Those who were called as witnesses didn’t think there was a designated supervisor.
Beyond the many specific details of this one site, two witnesses with experience in the Ministry of Labour spoke to the wider issue of fall-related deaths in the construction industry. The ministry reports “falls are the number one cause of critical injuries and deaths of construction workers in Ontario. In 2015, 10 workers died at construction projects from falls.”
Jeff McColl, an inspector with the Ministry of Labour out of the Peterborough office, said that strides have been taken in recent years with the addition of Working at Heights training, which sets out a stricter schedule with certified instructors.
However, he noted that there are still too many workers and employers who don’t take the risks of the job seriously enough.
“Everyone thinks the same thing: it’s not going to happen to me,” he said during his testimony on Wednesday.
Like the campaign against drunk driving or the addition of seat belts in cars, McColl said not only does training need to happen, but we also need a culture change around safety on job sites.
It needs to be socially unacceptable not to be wearing a harness. It needs to feel strange and uncomfortable to be on a roof without one.
The jury returned eight recommendations as part of their verdict on Thursday afternoon. Among them, asking the Ministry of Education to make mandatory workplace health and safety curriculum in school. Not just college or in apprenticeships, but in high school and elementary school too.
This is probably the most promising. In order to change practices, minds must be changed. The best place to start is with educating children.
Perhaps with time safety while working at heights will be as natural as putting on a seat belt. It’s a change that can’t come soon enough.