Largest workplace fine in Alberta history for oil giant’s role in the death of two Chinese workers

ST. ALBERT - A Canadian subsidiary of Chinese state-owned oil giant Sinopec has been ordered to pay $1.5 million in penalties for failing to ensure the safety of two Chinese workers killed in a 2007 tank collapse at a work site in northern Alberta.

Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Canada Ltd. pleaded guilty to three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in September. It was given the maximum $500,000 fine for each charge in a St. Albert courtroom Thursday.

The total penalty is the biggest workplace safety fine in Alberta's history and one of the biggest in Canada.

Two charges were related to the deaths of the two temporary foreign workers and the third was connected to two workers who were seriously injured.

As part of a creative sentencing agreement between Crown prosecutors and SSEC lawyers, $1.3 million of the fine will be used to educate temporary foreign workers on their legal rights.

Workers Ge Genbao, 28, and Lui Hongliang, 33, were killed on April 24, 2007 when the roof structure of a multi-storey metal holding tank collapsed at a work site 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The site was part of the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. $10.8-billion Horizon project.

Court has heard that SSEC Canada did not get the tank construction plan certified by an engineer. The wires securing the tank were not strong enough to hold up in even moderate winds, according to an agreed statement of facts.

"The accident almost had a sense of inevitability to it," said provincial court Judge John Maher. The judge said he was struck by the extent of the failure to comply by safety standards.

"This is a particularly egregious case," Maher said. "The size of the penalty is directionally proportional to the consequences of the act. It's hard to imagine in this case why it would not be a maximum penalty."

Crown prosecutor Marshall Hopkins said he was confident such a massive penalty would be an effective deterrent for other companies.

Kevin Flaherty, executive director of the Alberta Workers' Health Centre, said the money enables his group to "do some good work with a bad situation."

The $1.3 million will be used in a three-year program to train 45 people to educate temporary foreign workers about their rights and Alberta's workplace health laws. Flaherty said such workers are particularly vulnerable because they fear loss of their work visas if they speak up.

"They can't just walk across the street and get another job," Flaherty said. "We need to be a much better job of treating these workers as people when they arrive."

Flaherty expects the education program will reach 5,500 workers and spread further by word of mouth.

The Alberta Federation of Labour was not impressed by the court decision and called the fine "a slap on the wrist" that will not be a deterrent.

"One-and-a half-million dollars doesn't even amount to a rounding error in the annual budget of a monstrous global corporation like Sinopec," AFL president Gil McGowan said in a prepared statement. "This fine does nothing to dissuade them from playing fast and loose with the safety of their workforce."

SSEC was the direct employer of the workers and contracted by CNRL. SSEC recruited 132 Mandarin-speaking Chinese workers for the tank project.

The original plan was to build the tank walls first, then use them to support the roof while it was under construction. That plan changed when the project fell behind schedule.

CNRL approved the construction change, but SSEC did not prepare any formal written procedures that should have been certified by a professional engineer.

The construction of 13 tanks began on April 2, 2007. The collapse occurred three weeks later.

Hongliang, an electrician, was struck by a steel girder while standing on the partially completed wall. He died at the scene. His son, in China, was only a year old at the time. Genbao, a scaffolder, was on the floor of the tank and was crushed by falling steel. He died on the way to hospital. He is survived by four older sisters in China.

On Thursday afternoon, SSEC Canada issued a statement that expressed regret for the deaths and said it accepted Maher's ruling.

Sinopec had tried to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada on the grounds that it had no official presence in Canada and was not under the jurisdiction of a provincial justice system. The nation's top court refused to hear that appeal.

The Edmonton Journal, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013
Byline: Ryan Cormier

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