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Construction companies, foreman fined for safety violations leading to fatal fall at St. John’s hotel construction site

Construction companies, foreman fined for safety violations leading to fatal fall at St. John’s hotel construction site

About to start a shift at work on May 28, 2018, Margaret Fifield took a few minutes to check the news on her phone. An article about a tragedy on a construction site downtown caught her eye and her heart: a man working on a New Gower Street hotel had fallen from the building to his death.

“I felt sad for that family,” she said.

At the time she read the article, she didn’t know the family was her own.

With loved ones messaging her to ask if she had heard from her son, Chris, Fifield tried calling and texting him, but got no answer. When she checked her phone again, she had a missed call from a number she didn’t recognize; she later learned it was the police, calling with news that the man who had fallen was Chris.

“Once the officers arrived in my life, I knew it had come to an end,” Fifield said Wednesday, Oct. 20, in a victim impact statement read aloud in provincial court in St. John’s.

Chris Fifield, 26, was a field surveyor and project co-ordinator for Lancor Concrete Contracting, which had been contracted to build the Hilton Garden Inn.

Lancor and fellow contractor Magna Contracting and Management pleaded guilty Wednesday to multiple occupational health and safety (OHS) charges related to a failure to ensure a safe workplace. Bill Squires, Fifield’s foreman, pleaded guilty to a similar OHS charge.

The court heard Squires had called Fifield to work in the afternoon as concrete slabs were being laid on the 11th floor. Fifield arrived and asked how far along the crew were; he was told they had patched about a quarter of the top slab and had fixed the handrails around that part, and it was safe for him to go up.

Fifield took his survey equipment to the 11th level, spoke with Squires, and set up his tripod.

“The next thing workers heard was a clatter of something striking the work deck and catching a glimpse of Fifield and the tripod falling at the leading edge of Table 10,” prosecutor Jeff Summers read from an agreed statement of facts.

It was later discovered Fifield had stepped on an eight-foot piece of plywood that had been placed between the slab table and a concrete wall but had not been secured, and it had given way beneath him. OHS investigators determined Squires had instructed crew members to lay down the plywood, but hadn’t directed them to secure the plywood. Guardrails and netting had not been installed around the area.

“Mr. Fifield essentially fell through a trap door,” Summers told the court.

Fifield had not been wearing fall gear, he said, since none had been required when he had done similar work and no one had informed him of the potential hazards that day.

“It looked safe to him because that’s what he had done before,” Summers said.

Margaret Fifield detailed in her victim impact statement how her son’s death had turned her into a different person: grief-stricken, lonely, unable to sleep or drive downtown. She felt guilt over having to sell his home, but it tore her apart to check on it and she would often sit in her car and cry when she saw his neighbours had mowed his lawn or shovelled the driveway.

“Many times I find myself bursting into tears over a thought, a saying — anything, really, can trigger how much I miss Chris,” Margaret wrote. “How many times do I take up my phone to call him and ask where this place or that place is, or if I see something that Chris would get a kick out of, but I can’t do that. He’s not there anymore. A few ashes are all that I have left.”

Representing Magna and Squires, lawyers Vern French and Randy Piercey spoke of how Margaret’s words had touched them.

“The words that Ms. Fifield had to say ring home to me as a father,” French told the court. “I can feel the hurt. This was a first-time incident of this nature and for Magna it will be the last.”

Piercey, who said Squires had “quite properly” lost his job after Fifield’s death, called Margaret’s victim impact statement one of the most effective he had ever heard.

“I’ll show it to (Squires). He will find it absolutely horrifying,” Piercey said.

Judge James Walsh accepted a submission from counsel and ordered Lancor to pay $60,000 in fines for its role in Fifield’s death, plus $20,000 to Threads of Life, a charity for families who have suffered workplace tragedies. Walsh ordered Magna to pay a $15,000 fine, and fined Squires $3,000.

“No mother should have to bury her child,” the judge commented. “It’s not natural.”

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