Inquest small comfort to P.Engs concerned about regulatory shortcomings

A PEO member with extensive expertise investigating building collapses and structural failures is only partially relieved with news of a coroner’s inquest into the June 16, 2012 Radiohead concert stage scaffolding tower collapse.

Ralph Southward, P.Eng., principal of Hamilton-based Southward Consultants Limited, investigated the June 2012 Algo Centre Mall roof collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario, and the Radiohead concert stage scaffold tower collapse at Downsview Park in Toronto, Ontario, both of which resulted in fatalities and triggered considerable media and public attention, to assist the civil actions that arose because of the failures.

Southward has also assisted PEO and its Discipline Committee with the investigation of several structural issues, as well as investigations by the Ministry of Labour.

Concerns intensified last September when Ontario Court Justice Ann Nelson stayed charges against all defendants in the Radiohead incident, on grounds the case had taken too much time and had violated the rights of the defendants to a timely trial. Radiohead band’s drum technician, 33-year-old Scott Johnson, was working on the Downsview Park stage when the towers supporting the suspended temporary roof system collapsed. He was killed when crushed by the falling debris. Southward and others have asserted that staying the charges did nothing for the Johnson family, the public at large or the engineering profession.

While Southward is not presently permitted to discuss specific details of his civil-side investigations of the Downsview Park scaffolding collapse, he is troubled that the alleged negligent actions of an engineer could have caused the collapse, and were effectively dismissed without any consequences by the legal system.

“Quite frankly, there was a lot that should have come out [in the Radiohead trial] and should have been learned by the engineering community, and the fact that the charges have been stayed, to me is nothing short of criminal, really, and I don’t know what we can do about it,” Southward said in an interview with Engineering Dimensions.

The consulting engineer is concerned that the type of accident at the Radiohead concert could very well occur again, unless engineers and others involved in public safety are allowed to speak out.

“The results of the Radiohead case haven’t served the public at all,” Southward says. “That collapse could have killed more people. And what have we learned? It has now been approximately six years since the collapse and the question still remains: What has the engineering community learned to prevent that type of collapse from occurring again?”

On November 29, 2017, Roger Skinner, regional supervising coroner for central region, Toronto west office, announced that an inquest will be held to examine the events surrounding Johnson’s death. The inquest jury may make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths. Calling an inquest is of some consolation to Southward and other engineers.

Southward began designing scaffold systems more than 40 years ago, and has previously investigated three scaffolding failures, each involving fatalities. He is concerned that previous coroner’s inquests and recommendations were still not able to prevent the Radiohead tragedy.

PEO officials contend the engineering profession has responded appropriately to the Elliot Lake and Radiohead incidents, primarily by instituting a professional development program for members and by working to release more information about practitioners’ discipline records. In addition, any investigations undertaken by PEO proceed independently of the court system.

The regulator is always looking to tighten up its enforcement and investigation powers under the Professional Engineers Act and, in December, a number of act changes were approved by the government.

Some of the recent legislative changes form the province’s response to the report of the Elliot Lake Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the causes of the Algo Centre Mall collapse and made recommendations for improving building safety and structural inspection guidelines.

A key act change includes providing PEO with continuing jurisdiction over suspended or revoked members. This lack of authority hindered PEO from disciplining revoked engineer Robert Wood in the Elliot Lake matter.