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R.M. Belanger fined $175,000 for death of worker in Ontario bridge collapse


July 12, 2021
By Rock to Road Staff

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An Ontario company was fined $175,000, plus a 25 per cent victim fine surcharge, after a worker was killed when an 18-ton bridge collapsed.

An Ontario court imposed the fine on R.M. Belanger, a company based in Chelmsford, Ont., that works on public infrastructure projects including the building of roads and bridges.

The worker was killed on Aug. 14, 2019, when a bridge on Highway 17 near Marathon, Ont., collapsed when it was being jacked into place.

“The company failed to take the reasonable precaution of ensuring a safe procedure was used for jacking down a temporary modular bridge,” according to the description of offence posted by the province.

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The company pled guilty to the charge.

What happened

In 2019, R.M. Belanger  contracted with the Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO) to replace a culvert at Angler Creek, just west of Marathon, Ontario on Highway 17.

A 120-foot long temporary modular bridge was to be assembled and installed to carry road traffic in order to accommodate replacement of the existing culvert.

The bridge was assembled on the road on the east side of the creek, then pushed across the creek on rollers and set down on concrete landing pads. On August 14, 2019, a crew of eight Belanger employees were at the site.

The bridge was moved across the creek and was set down on pillars of 6” x 6” wood cribbing at each corner.

‘Bottle jacks’ were to be used to jack the bridge down in stages, removing cribbing as it was lowered. Seven of the eight crew were engaged in this operation. A supervisor was directing the workers in the lowering of the bridge.

One of the workers on the crew was not involved in moving or jacking the bridge but was involved on the site as a driver, and bringing other workers tools and water as needed.

Lowering the bridge

Lowering the bridge was to be accomplished by using two bottle jacks on each corner.

One jack would take the weight of the bridge while cribbing was removed from one side of each cribbing tower.

A second jack would then take the weight while the first jack was removed and cribbing taken from the other side of the tower.

The bridge would thus be lowered one step at a time by releasing pressure with a valve on the bottle jack.

The lowering of the bridge was being coordinated by the supervisor. At each lowering stage, the bridge was fully supported by a bottle jack on each corner. The supervisor was using only a level on one end of the bridge in giving instructions to workers on all corners regarding the rate of movement of each corner. No mechanical means was being used to coordinate the rate of movement as between the various jacks.

At one point in the process it was observed that a jack at the northwest corner was starting to lean. The supervisor went to that corner to observe the jack. While the supervisor turned to return to the work station, that jack tipped over, allowing the 18-ton bridge to collapse. It tipped from the jacks at three of the corners.

The worker who was not involved in moving or jacking was sitting on the concrete landing pad and was crushed by the frame of the bridge, suffering fatal injuries. Another worker suffered non-critical injuries as the bridge fell and moved to the side.

The worker who died had about 15 minutes earlier been sitting on a pile of discarded cribbing but had been asked to move.

Ministry investigation

An investigation by the Ministry of Labour, Training, and Skills Development could not determine the exact cause of the bridge collapse. However, a number of factors were found to have contributed to the collapse and the resulting fatality:

Section 213(1) of the Construction Projects Regulation (Regulation 213/91) prohibits a worker who is not directly involved in the movement of a structure from being near it. The deceased worker was not involved in the jacking of the bridge.

The manufacturers’ operating manuals for the bottle jacks being used all caution against workers being under an object being supported by the jack. In addition to the deceased worker, who was sitting under the frame of the bridge when it collapsed, all of those involved in jacking the bridge were at times under the structure to utilize the jacks.

The manufacturer of the temporary modular bridge cautioned against both ends of the bridge being jacked at the same time.

Its operating manual requires that one end always be secured against accidental movement when the other end is being supported on jacks.

At the time of the bridge collapse, both ends of the bridge were supported only by bottle jacks.

Cribbing towers

A geotechnical engineering report obtained in advance of movement of the bridge, as required by the MTO contract, approved of the location of bridge support bearing pads at specified locations where the composition and contours of the soil could support them. The cribbing towers, however, were erected on ground that had not been analyzed in the engineering process and was adjacent to sloped ground.

Coordination of the jacking process was controlled by the supervisor. A mechanical means of coordination – for example, a central hydraulic line going to both sides of each end of the bridge – would have allowed even, coordinated and level movement of the structure without reliance on an individual’s perception and direction to multiple workers as to the pace of jack movement at each location.

Approval was obtained from the MTO for the installation of the bridge based on submitted engineering documents. The approved process required excavation of the launching side of the creek for assembly of the bridge modules so that when the bridge was pushed across the creek, it would only need to be jacked down about 13-1/2 inches. However, the bridge was assembled at road grade, so that when it was in place over the concrete support pads, it was on cribbing towers over 1.4 metres high, requiring considerably more jacking stages over a much greater distance.

The maximum distance each end should be jacked at any time, according to the bridge manufacturer’s operating manual, was 75 mm (about 3 inches). Investigation demonstrated that the distance of the bridge frame from the cribbing at the time of the collapse was 12 inches (about 300 mm), as illustrated by the distance at the one corner of the bridge that did not fall from its jack. No method had been used to minimize the gap between the bridge structure and the cribbing towers during each jacking phase.

Guilty plea

The company pleaded guilty of failing as an employer to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker, contrary to section 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

On February 26, 2021, the company was convicted under the same violation of the OHSA and fined $210,000 when a worker was killed at a golf course near Sudbury. That worker was struck by a wooden telephone pole while it was being loaded with a forklift onto a trailer.

Most of the above text was provided by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.