There was no public consultation when the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority decided to install railings on the Ogden Point breakwater because worker safety and insurance requirements are not up for debate, says the authority’s CEO.
“It’s a done deal,” Curtis Grad said. “There’s no discussion when it comes to having to meet code and keep your insurance. We had two choices. Either comply or shut down the breakwater, and the latter was not an option for us.”
A plan to put aluminum posts and horizontal steel cables along both sides of the historic 700-metre structure was announced Dec. 12, with work set to start mid-January. The job will take up to 12 weeks, during which the breakwater will be closed.
Drops of one to three metres from the breakwater to the granite blocks below put workers at risk, Grad said. The issue was first raised by Labour Canada during an inspection in February.
Labour Canada required a corrective action plan, he said. The harbour authority did not say whether handrails were requested.
Harbour authority workers walk the breakwater doing weekly or monthly inspections, Grad said.
The authority’s insurer, Aon, conducted its own risk assessment this summer. It determined the unguarded breakwater was an unacceptable risk to public safety and that either “fall protection” or closure was required, the authority said. “Based on [that], handrails were identified as the most effective solution to protect both worker and public safety.”
Although the authority initially suggested cyclists and skateboarders might be allowed on the breakwater, that’s not going to happen, Grad added.
Authority spokeswoman Rebecca Penz did not comment on why the breakwater had been previously insured without handrails.
The $500,000 railing contract, expected to be finalized in the next week, will be paid for through fees and revenues generated by the authority, not taxpayers, Grad said.
The breakwater was constructed from 1913 to 1915 but the handrail issue came to the fore about a year ago, when the harbour authority came under federal labour safety provisions, not provincial ones, Grad said.
Harbour workers are traditionally covered by federal safety legislation.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada says employers must assess workplace hazards and determine measures to mitigate them and “may address more than worker safety, should the employer determine that other persons could be at risk.”
Two deaths and several serious injuries attributed to breakwater falls have been reported in the Times Colonist since 1992. A 20-year-old man was believed to have suffered a seizure and died after falling off in 1992; a 45-year-old man tripped and suffered severe head injuries in 1995; a 14-year-old girl hit her head twice after falling over the side late at night in May 2000, but was not seriously injured; a 63-year-old woman was found dead in the water in early 2001; and another man was seriously injured in early 2001.
Other planned improvements include a divers’ stairway near the lighthouse, and a possible second one nearer the mid-point, Grad said.
Those using wheelchairs and walkers, previously blocked by a gate, will be able to access the breakwater after the railings are installed.
Fear of views being obstructed is the main reason people oppose the move, according to social media sites the harbour authority has monitored. Grad said numbers in favour and opposed “roughly balance” on such sites.
Lawyer Robert Gill considers the current plan overkill, given the track record of the nearly century-old landmark.
“Any time I go out there, I’m fully aware I’m out there at my own risk,” said Gill, who successfully represented the federal government, when it operated the breakwater, in a court case 20 years ago that involved a man who was pushed over the walkway and injured.
“If I don’t like the conditions, I don’t go.”
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