Ottawa's transit boss staunchly defended working conditions inside the city's light rail tunnel Wednesday, one day after the CBC published a story quoting workers who complained the job site is crowded, hazardous and unsanitary.
John Manconi, the city's general manager of transportation services, told reporters that Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the consortium building the first phase of the light rail system, has a "very good" safety record, and claimed the issues the workers raised had either been addressed or were embellished.
"I'm going to choose my words carefully," Manconi began after he was asked about the complaints.
"RTG puts safety at the forefront of everything they do. They have a very good safety record in there. We talk to them frequently about that."
Manconi said a problem with overflowing toilets in the tunnel has been fixed, suggesting a photo provided to CBC showing one such porta-potty was "dated."
However the worker who snapped the picture said it was taken last week. The man said workers have taken to relieving themselves in the tunnel rather than use the unsanitary facilities.
Worker didn't report injury, Manconi says
Manconi also questioned an account from another worker who said he was badly injured in the tunnel. The man claimed the incident wasn't reported until he called the Ministry of Labour himself two weeks later.
"With all due respect, he did not report the injury, he didn't report it to his subcontractor, he didn't report it to the general contractor, and then I suspect subsequently after he found out he was being covered by insurance, he then decided to report," Manconi said, adding there's a legal requirement for employers to report workplace injuries.
Manconi disputed the notion that safety protocols are being ignored in order to complete construction deadlines. RTG faces financial penalties for missing those targets.
"This notion that we're racing to the finish? RTG has a requirement to meet labour laws and has a requirement as the constructor to ensure the safety and security of all their employees, and they're doing that," Manconi said.
Ministry visits tunnel 'extensively'
Manconi said the Ministry of Labour has visited the tunnel "extensively," and denied reports that it temporarily shut the project down.
"If the Ministry of Labour had extensive concerns, they would be shutting down the project," Manconi said.
"We have to deal with facts. These are human lives."
Manconi did agree that the work site is crowded due to the nature of the project, but said RTG has it under control.
"It is a crowded place. It is a tunnel. It is hard work, it is intense work."
Employees who spoke to CBC said crews are often working on top of one another, and sometimes complete jobs in an unorthodox sequence in order to meet tight deadlines. They said construction debris litters the tunnel floor, creating hazards underfoot.
One man described backing his cement truck into the dark, dusty tunnel, a job he eventually quit over safety concerns.
Defensive stance 'mind-boggling'
Ottawa and District Labour Council president Sean McKenny called Manconi's response to the workers' claims "odd," particularly since RTG, not the city, is responsible for keeping the tunnel safe.
"To be so defensive, it really is sort of mind-boggling," he said. "Workers in the tunnel are concerned about their safety. It's unfortunate that the response from the city is that everything's is perfectly OK, and that it's a perfectly safe place to be."
Manconi said the city and RTG have agreed to meet monthly with McKenny to address ongoing safety concerns.
"We got his list of his concerns, RTG has addressed every single one of them. All the Ministry of Labour orders and observations have been followed through by RTG."
Manconi urged employees who have safety concerns to report them to RTG instead of complaining to the media.
"They should come and talk to their employer."