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Questions linger six months after horrific building collapse that left two local workers dead

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The rubble is long gone, and work has resumed, but many questions remain about a partial building collapse – one of London’s worst workplace disasters in memory – that killed two workers and injured five others two weeks before Christmas 2020.

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Construction sites, with their large structures, heights, holes and heavy equipment, have long been among the most dangerous workplaces in Ontario, accounting for roughly one-third of all workplace deaths over the last decade. Safety is always paramount, but the London case has pushed London Home Builders’ Association members to re-evaluate their practices and recommit to precautionary measures, said group president Sue Wastell.

“When events like this happen, it reignites safety being top of mind for everyone,” she said. “You make sure that you’re doing absolutely everything you can.”

In the wake of the London case, many home builders are creating closer relationships with skilled trades brought in to work at their job sites to ensure they’re committed to safety, Wastell said.

“The tragedy at Teeple Terrace definitely forced the industry to take a hard look at their own internal safety cultures and focus on what could be done better,” said Brandon MacKinnon, business manager of Local 1059 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

“For many in the industry, it was a reminder of just how quickly things can go wrong and definitely brought a renewed focus and commitment to job-site and worker safety.”

Provincial inspectors are still investigating what happened at the site at 555 Teeple Terrace, off Wonderland Road, on Dec. 11, but it’s an open question how much longer that will take.

Two concrete workers – John Martens, 21, of Langton, and Henry Harder, 26, of Tillsonburg – were killed.

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How long the investigation takes will depend on the complexities of the case, a ministry spokesperson said. Ministry staff will review the final investigation report and, if charges are warranted under Ontario’s workplace safety law, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, they’ll be laid within a year of the partial collapse.

There will be a coroner’s inquest but precisely when remains unclear. Quasi-judicial hearings designed to prevent similar deaths, inquests are mandatory in workplace deaths in Ontario in the construction, mining and quarrying industries. A jury examines the circumstances of the death or deaths and makes non-binding recommendations to prevent similar ones in future. No date has been set for an inquest in the London case, a Solicitor General’s Ministry spokesperson said. Such inquests, however, are only held after all other investigations – including by police and the Ministry of Labour – are completed, along with any court prosecutions and appeals.

The search for answers in workplace deaths often takes years and exacts a toll on victims’ families, friends and colleagues, said Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

Recommendations and action to prevent similar deaths are even slower, she said.

“Accountability and action often comes way too slowly,” Coates said. “We have to look at the processes in place and ensure that (workplace injuries and deaths) get looked at as quickly as possible. These families are looking for answers.

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Maximum penalties for violations of Ontario’s workplace safety law range, for individuals, to fines of up to $100,000, a year in jail or both. Companies can be fined as much as $1.5 million.

Employers must be held to the highest safety standards and should face stiffer penalties for violations, Coates said.

The federation encourages police to investigate workplace deaths or injuries and, if warranted, lay criminal charges, Coates said.

“I think all (workplace incidents) should be looked at through that lens. There may not be criminal negligence, it could be a true accident, but if there is… it needs to be investigated, no matter what.”

– Reported by Jennifer Bieman, Norman De Bono, Jonathan Juha, Jane Sims and Megan Stacey

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