LRT workers worry over hazards in crowded tunnel

1 / 5
LRT workers worry over hazards in crowded tunnel

Some workers labouring to complete Ottawa's light rail system say they're worried about their safety because the project's tight deadlines are forcing too many people into the tunnel at any one time.

Workers told CBC News the overcrowding has led to poor working conditions where crews are sometimes literally on top of one another, and debris litters the site. They say poor sanitation is also an issue, with some workers opting to relieve themselves in the tunnel rather than use overflowing porta-potties.

"There's so many people down there, it's crazy," said one worker. "It's just a disaster zone. It's like a Third World country down there ... it's just dirty, a lot of tripping hazards, the washrooms are disgusting."

CBC News spoke to three workers about their experiences inside the light rail tunnel. CBC has agreed to protect their identities because they're concerned they could lose their jobs and jeopardize further opportunities in the construction industry if they speak out.  All three said they signed confidentiality agreements when they were hired to work on the project.

The Rideau Transit Group, the management company in charge of the $2.1-billion initial phase of the light rail system, accelerated the project schedule after a major road collapse in June 2016 suspended work for weeks.

RTG said it's making up for lost time by bringing in more workers and adding extra shifts. Crews are working 24/7 "where feasible," and some jobs are being completed in an unorthodox order in order to keep the overall project on track for completion in 2018.

RTG's contract provides financial incentives for meeting various project deadlines, and penalties that could potentially run into the millions of dollars for missing them.

But some workers who describe a hazardous work environment say they're the ones paying the price.

-

Have a story to tell? Contact ashley.burke@cbc.ca

'Tripping over each other'

One construction worker currently employed underground said there are so many people crowding the confined space that they're frequently bumping into each other.  

"You have multiple operations going on, multiple companies, all working in the same area — working in a box basically," said the worker.

"Picture you're building a bedroom. You have your electrician, your painter, and your drywaller all there at the same time... They are definitely tripping over each other."

He said crews are already starting to lay the track while others are finishing the tunnelling work.

"They are so far behind schedule, but the deadlines do not change. The deadline is the biggest thing right now."

The Ministry of Labour said it hasn't issued any orders for overcrowding on the Ottawa site because "there is no specific regulation for the number of workers in a given area."

Injury sparked investigation

Another worker said he was injured in the tunnel when he tripped over a length of rebar protruding from a wall.

"My foot caught it and I fell into the concrete trench. My face hit off the ground.... I was knocked out unconscious," said the worker about the March 1 incident.

"My face was gushing blood because my teeth went through my lip."

He said no one could find a phone to report his injury, and there were no spinal boards to carry him out on. He said he had to make his own way out of the tunnel with the help of other workers.

The man underwent surgery for a herniated disc in his neck and is unable to return to work for at least three months.

The worker said the incident wasn't reported to the Ministry of Labour until he called on March 14, two weeks later.

"It was handled horribly," he said.

His call prompted a visit to the tunnel by an inspector who found there was immediate risk of injury and issued seven stop work orders. Three of the orders were related to tripping hazards, while the rest concerned fire hoses, rescue training and missing equipment, including respirators.

In some areas of the tunnel work was suspended for two weeks as a result of the orders, and didn't resume until March 30.

The worker whose injury sparked the investigation said conditions in the tunnel are unlike anything he's ever seen at a construction site.

"There's stuff everywhere on the floors," he said.

The same worker is also speaking out about the condition of the tunnel's porta-potties. He said there aren't enough of them, and they're not cleaned regularly.

The man said some workers have taken to relieving themselves elsewhere in the tunnel to avoid the porta-potties.

"It's very disgusting conditions to have to use any facilities down there," he said. "You'd be shocked."

Hazardous conditions

A third man who agreed to speak with CBC said conditions in the tunnel were so bad he quit in February.

"By far, it's the worst job site I've ever been on," said the contractor, who had been delivering concrete to the site for about two years. "Everything is rushed."

The man, whose job involved backing his truck deep into the dark, crowded tunnel, said he was in constant fear of being injured on the job.

"My life is worth more than 50 to 60 grand a year," he said. "What's the point of making money if you're going to die over it?"

He said he complained to his superiors on several occasions, and eventually refused to enter the tunnel when workers were spraying concrete because the thick dust in the air severely reduced his visibility. 

Thick mud presented another hazard, he said.

"There was one time backing in and I could not tell the difference between where the road was and where the mud puddle was because the water level was so high you can't see," he said. "That thing's so deep that if I drive in it, I'm flipping the truck right on its side."

The man said there were no pylons or other markers warning workers of the various hazards, including large rocks littering the tunnel floor.

"What concerns me is when you hit those boulders with a tire at the sweet spot, that thing will shoot like a bullet. That can easily break your leg. If you have it in the face it will knock you right out, kill you," he said.

"It's not only about my safety. It's about others' safety."

RTG defends safety record

Neither the city nor RTG agreed to an interview about conditions inside the LRT tunnel. 

"Safety is always the top priority for the city, and we are confident that RTG is taking the appropriate measures to ensure the tunnel is a safe construction site," said Steve Cripps, the city's director of O-Train construction, in a written statement. 

In a similar statement, RTG insisted safety is a priority, and said the contractors working on the project "continue to comply with industry standards."

RTG won't comment on the orders from the Ministry of Labour, but said "their visits to our active construction sites are welcome as they assist us in improving safety at our work sites. All orders from the MOL are actioned expeditiously and we work collaboratively with MOL inspectors towards acceptable resolution."

RTG said workers with concerns about the job site can air them during monthly meetings of a joint health and safety committee.

RTG also noted that with up to 1,100 people working on the LRT project at any given time, only 11 workers have had to take time off due to injuries suffered on the job, a rate RTG claims is better than the industry average.