Two deaths in two years not taken lightly, he says
In July 2011, an employee with the Department of Transportation and Works was killed while conducting an evaluation on the Outer Ring Road in the metro area, and in July 2013, another employee of the department was killed while setting up signs for road painting on the Trans-Canada Highway near Flat Bay.
Brent Meade, deputy minister of Transportation and Works, did not shy away from mentioning the workplace deaths in presenting on workplace safety at the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association (NLCSA) conference at the Sheraton Hotel in St. John’s Tuesday.
“It had significant impact on our staff and the leadership of the department,” he said. “For those of you again who work in this field and who had this unfortunate situation happen, it has a very, very big impact on the emotional state, the morale and the thinking everybody brings to their work on a day-to-day basis.”
He said the fatalities underscored the need for a “cultural shift” he believes was already happening in the department, specifically a push for more frank discussions around safety.
“It did allow people to have very frank, safe conversations,” he said, explaining workers shed fears of negative response to raising safety issues, an attitude he said the department had been encouraging before the accidents and continues to encourage.
“People had a lot to say about how we’re doing business.”
Three lines of thought
When it comes to improving safety, he said, the provincial government department has focused on
three lines of thought: safe work practices, enforcement and education.
The department has more than 400 summer and 600 winter maintenance workers dealing with provincial roadways, out of a total employee count of more than 2,200.
“It’s a real challenge that we have every day, is how we balance productivity, employee safety and enabling people to freely move,” he said.
In addition to worker consultations, the department launched an internal review of its guidance documents for workers, such as the department’s Traffic Control Manual.
As for safety concerns, he said, road workers are generally reporting seeing a higher number of incidents of distracted and speeding drivers.
There are also agitated and aggressive drivers adding to their level of concern.
“Benton, Newfoundland, last summer, central, you probably heard — 45 minutes, 50 minutes people were waiting. It’s very frustrating. We had drivers in Benton throw things at us, at flag people, as they drive by,” he said.
Fines have been doubled around road worksites, he said, to deter speeding drivers.
The department has also worked with the RNC and RCMP to blitz construction zones from time to time. More blitzes are being planned for the coming construction season.
The department is also looking to purchase new equipment, he said, potentially including barrier vehicles and data-collecting LED speed signs.
“There’s some debate around other things and more things we could be doing,” he said.
“The safest thing for us to do is close our roads. That’s the safest thing for us to do. But we realize that’s not practical in many respects.”
The City of St. John’s was asked about road worker safety, particularly in light of the Outer Ring Road fatality.
“As per City policy we cannot speak to any incident that is currently before the courts,” a city spokeswoman stated an emailed response.
The city, province and Irving have been charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in relation to the death and the case is ongoing.
She added, "the City of St. John's regularly reviews and updates its safe work procedures to protect the health and safety of our employees while on the job."