Thirty-seven years ago this week, four men said goodbye to their families, put on their tools and hardhats, and went to work building one of Vancouver’s most iconic highrises.
Their families would never see them again because a few hours later, they were dead.
The four carpenters — Gunther Couvreux, Donald Davis, Yrjo Mitrunen and Brian Stevenson —were working on the top of the Bentall Centre IV tower when the fly form that supported them suddenly broke away, sending them 36 floors to their deaths.
The Bentall Tower IV tragedy was the deadliest workplace incident since 1958, when several spans on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge collapsed and stole the lives of 18 construction workers and the commercial diver sent to retrieve their bodies.
The Bentall tragedy prompted not only a coroner’s inquest but also an inquiry into the entire industry, which found construction “a dangerous place to work.”
Kitt White, widow of Gunther Couvreux, asked the coroner’s inquest, “How many more will die?” and observed, “Life seems cheap in the construction industry.”
The inquest determined there were repeated violations of site safety regulations, including a failure to properly assemble the fly form, while the inquiry heard stories from every corner of the province about unsafe working conditions.
Although we have made significant strides in occupational safety in the last three dozen years, workers in the construction trades continue to lose their lives. More than 1,000 construction workers have died in B.C. due to workplace trauma or disease since the Bentall tragedy. Last year was particularly deadly, with 44 work-related construction deaths, representing a staggering 42 per cent increase over 2016. The occupational fatality rate among construction workers is three times the provincial average.
A reprieve is unlikely. Asbestos is the number-one killer of workers in B.C. and the rate of asbestos-related disease is on the rise. Asbestos is colourless, odourless and deadly when disturbed. It can be found in more than 3,000 different building materials used in homes built before 1990.
Unscrupulous contractors have knowingly exposed workers to asbestos during demolition work. And while the workers don’t suffer the consequences of that exposure immediately, they know that in time they too may have to face the reality of asbestosis or mesothelioma. Indeed, 25 of the 44 work-related construction deaths in 2017 were due to asbestos exposure.
Canada’s record on asbestos is shameful. As recently as 2010, Quebec was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos and exporting about 90 per cent of it to developing countries. At the same time, while 50 other countries in the world had banned the mining and use of asbestos, Canada successfully lobbied the UN to keep this cancer-causing killer off a list of hazardous substances.
Finally, the federal Liberal government promised in December 2016 to implement a comprehensive ban on asbestos by 2018. This involves the creation of new regulations to prohibit the manufacture, use, import and export of asbestos. A new federal initiative launched in July 2017 supports the ban by lowering the acceptable level of workplace exposure to airborne chrysotile asbestos to as close to zero as possible.
Meanwhile, the Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution in 2016 lobbying the provincial government to “require mandatory licensing, certification, and enforceable compliance in safely handling asbestos and other hazardous material for all demolition, renovation, and environmental remediation contractors.”
BC Building Trades and our own former president Lee Loftus fought hard for decades for these advancements, however, there is still work to be done to protect construction workers from the deadly legacy of asbestos as well as other occupational hazards.
This is the reason we come together every year to mark the Bentall tragedy; to honour the men who lost their lives that day, and to remind ourselves and everyone else working in the industry that the safety of workers must come first.
It’s the least we can do for the thousands of highly skilled construction trades people who go to work building the bridges, mills, dams, factories, schools, hospitals and other major infrastructure projects that comprise the communities in which we live, work and raise our families.
Tom Sigurdson is executive director of the BC Building Trades Council.