Three companies involved in the Horizons oilsands mega-project face 53 charges for an incident that killed two Chinese temporary foreign workers when the roof of a storage tank under construction collapsed in 2007.
"It's shocking and incredibly disturbing. You expect there to be policies and procedures in place to at least guarantee the fundamental basics of construction are being followed," Wayne Prins, Fort McMurray director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, said Tuesday.
"There were some pretty fundamental failures that became apparent through their investigation."
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd. and SSEC Canada Ltd. have all been charged under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The Christian Labour Association helped the widows of workers Ge Ganbao and Lui Hongliang to ensure they received their husbands' life insurance policies. One widow was almost swindled of the insurance money by a woman who impersonated her.
More than 100 Chinese workers on the same project did not receive any wages between April and July 2007, Alberta Employment and Immigration confirmed Tuesday.
The steel tanks the Chinese tradesmen were building were part of Canadian Natural Resources' $10.8-billion Horizon project, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. Five other Chinese workers were also injured in the roof collapse. Almost a month later, a second large tank collapsed on the site.
Both Canadian Natural Resources and SSEC Canada declined to comment on the charges Tuesday.
The charges are a first for the province.
"We've never seen 53 charges before," said Barrie Harrison, spokesman for Occupational Health and Safety. "This is a precedent setter to see the number of charges laid in connection with a workplace incident."
The charges could each carry a maximum fine of $500,000. Harrison, however, said it's unlikely all the charges will be pursued when the case goes to court in Fort McMurray this summer. The province has been unable to serve papers to China-based Sinopec, raising the question of whether the company will appear in court.
Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau said the charges signal to the world Alberta's oilsands region is a safe place to work.
"The oil and gas industry is still one of the safest places to work when you look at the thousands of people that are involved there and the number of incidents," Goudreau said. "The fact that there's 53 charges is an indication of how serious we're taking this."
Goudreau and Premier Ed Stelmach dismissed any need to re-evaluate the temporary foreign worker program in light of the charges.
"It doesn't matter whether it's temporary workers or Albertans that have been on the job for many years," Stelmach said. "Once you're in Alberta you have to abide by Alberta rules. This is a very complex and complicated investigation. But we do mean business when it comes to the safety of the workers."
Occupational Health and Safety alleges failures on the project site included failing to ensure a professional engineer checked project blueprints, failing to ensure the roof support structure inside the tank was stable during assembly, and failing to ensure clips used to fasten rope wire were installed properly.
Canadian Natural Resources faces numerous charges of failing to ensure its contractor used due diligence to protect the health and safety of workers.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said his organization raised concerns when it was announced that a Chinese contractor would take over part of the construction work at the Horizons site.
"This is about more than occupational health and safety violations. It's about the use of foreign contractors from countries where companies don't observe construction and health and safety standards that are similar to Canada," McGowan said.