N.B. worksite where supervisor fell to his death short-handed, inquest hears

·5 min read
Steven Lutes died on Jan. 30, 2017 while doing construction work at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fredericton.  (Cobb's Funeral Home  - image credit)
Steven Lutes died on Jan. 30, 2017 while doing construction work at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fredericton. (Cobb's Funeral Home - image credit)

A construction worker who described himself as a right-hand man to the late Steven Lutes, says his supervisor's death could have easily been prevented if Lutes had had a spotter.

"If somebody had been standing next to him, he could have been warned that he was getting too close to the edge," said Joel Gardner in a recorded statement that was given to WorkSafeNB investigators the day after the fatal accident.

"All I've seen is hurry on that site," said Gardner, who was working on the fifth floor, "eight feet above" Lutes as the two were trying to move concrete forms into position on the morning of Jan. 30, 2017.

Gardner expressed sorrow and remorse for the loss of Lutes, whom he described as a good man who was easy to work with and understanding.

He said he was talking to Lutes on the site at about 7:30 a.m., less than four hours before Lutes fell.

He said the father of two had been talking about his young children attending a birthday party and going swimming.

Gardner said Lutes, who lived in Upper Coverdale, was exhausted, partly because he was driving to the worksite every day "from Moncton" and was under pressure from his employer to get the job done.

"He was always tired," said Gardner on tape. "He was driving from Moncton and had two young kids."

"There was a lot of pressure on Steve," he said. "I blame it all on being short-handed on guys," he said.

Worker felt rushed

The coroner's inquest got underway in the Saint John courthouse Monday morning with the selection of a five-member jury.

The jury heard that at the time Lutes fell, wooden guardrails had been removed so that a concrete form could be lifted into place by a crane.

Gardner said he felt like he saw Lutes wearing his harness, but he said workers were often too hurried to secure their harnesses, or there were no good places to hook into.

Gardner said the pressure was coming from their employer, Lead Structural Formwork.

In 2019, the company was fined $50,000 in connection with Lutes's death after pleading guilty to a charge under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of failing to ensure the fall-protection system was used.

Catherine Harrop/CBC
Catherine Harrop/CBC

Michael Goodwin, another worker who was present that day, said it was quite an unsafe work site.

"Everything was rushed, rushed," said Goodwin. "And if you're rushed, you're going to make mistakes."

Presiding corner Emily Caissy asked Goodwin if he was aware of any consequences for not making deadlines.

"I guess you could say you were afraid of losing your job," Goodwin replied.

Nothing of criminal nature

The jury also heard from Carla Forsythe, who was then a detective with the major crime unit of the Fredericton Police Force.

She said she responded to the scene that morning and spoke to witnesses. She said there was nothing to suggest anything of a criminal nature had taken place.

There was no suggestion that Lutes had been pushed, for example, or that there'd been a fight before the incident.

She concluded it was a tragic accident.

Project was going well, owner's son testifies

Paul Crevatin said he had been the New Brunswick regional manager for Lead Structural Formwork at the time of the incident and he testified that the company had been co-founded by his father.

Crevatin said Lutes was a high school friend and he knew that Lutes was busy with the project and agreed to leave his office tasks to do some labour.

"I said I would come down and help him," said Crevatin. "I asked him where I would be most helpful and he directed me to the fifth floor."

Crevatin said he didn't see Lutes fall but he heard the crane operator say somebody had fallen and the operator say he thought it was Lutes.

"I dropped my toolbelt," said Crevatin, who then rushed to look over the edge of the building where he could see someone lying on the ground.

When Crevatin got to Lutes, he said he checked for a pulse and observed the Lutes wasn't breathing.

"There was a lot of blood coming from his head and his ear," said Crevatin.

"I did CPR until the ambulance arrived. He was pronounced dead within minutes."

Crevatin said he started making calls, first to his own father, then to other owners of the company. He couldn't reach his father right away. He also said he just wanted to get off the site and go see Lutes's wife and children, then aged eight and 10.

But he said the police wouldn't let him drive in the state he was in.

Crevatin was asked several questions about whether the job was behind schedule and whether workers felt pressured. He said that was not the case.

"I believe we were operating within expectations," said Crevatin. "The job was going very well."

"It wasn't like we were under the gun."

Crown prosecutor Jeremy Erickson, who was questioning witnesses as counsel to the coroner, reminded Crevatin of something he said to a WorkSafeNB officer.

"You said you and Lutes always push," said Erickson, asking Crevatin to explain what he meant.

Crevatin said it meant that he and Lutes were organized and dynamic and in that sense, both of them were "pushers."

The inquest resumes Tuesday morning.

The eight-storey hotel opened in August 2018. It originally was scheduled to be completed by late 2017.

Lead Structural Formwork was contracted by the general contractor Lindsay Construction.

Aquilini Properties owns the site.

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