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Montreal’s REM: Company in charge of project hit with health and safety violations

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The company responsible for building Montreal’s REM light rail has violated multiple health and safety regulations during the construction of the railway that put workers at risk, according to reports issued by Quebec’s occupational health and safety commission (CNESST).

The FTQ union representing construction workers says there have been concerns since the beginning of the project, which was contracted to construction and engineering firm NouvLR in 2018.

“It’s been so many years that we’ve been fighting with those issues with the CNESST and they’ve been on job sites, but many times the employer just didn’t listen,” FTQ general manager Eric Boisjoly told CTV in an interview.

According to one of two CNESST reports obtained by CTV News, the CNESST began an investigation two days after learning about the runaway of an untethered piece of rolling stock.

The document says that on Sept. 5, 2022, the equipment “drifted onto one of the tracks on the Samuel-de-Champlain Bridge towards the Ile-des-Soeurs station,” then picked up speed and ran into a signaling switch while traveling at 50 km/h.

“The accident did not cause any injuries. However, the foreman was shocked by the incident,” the report said.

According to Boisjoly however, others have been hurt at the job over the last few years.

“It’s so many injuries. We’re lucky that we don’t have any deaths on that job site,” he said.

“They put the pressure on them, let’s say, to go faster and faster and faster. And lack of training, it’s always the same thing.”

In the report, the workplace safety investigator pieces together what happened from the information provided by the foreman. He said that the rolling stock, an RSM12, was low on power and that another piece of equipment was being used to get it moving.

The runaway occurred, the report concluded, because the two machines had been disconnected when they should have been “coupled.”

NouLR was told to halt a certain type of work related to the incident along the entire 67-kilometre-long worksite on Sept. 7, 2022, to restore the deficiencies.

That type of edict has not always been followed, according to a report by La Presse, which said the builders had been told in the past to shut down certain work sites altogether, but on two occasions, NouvLR did not comply.

The newspaper also reported that NouvLR was fined nearly $40,000 for those violations and more than $10,000 for other violations on job sites.

The CNESST did not respond to a request for comment from CTV News on Tuesday to confirm that information.

AT LEAST TWO OTHER ‘ACCIDENTS’

The incident described above isn’t the only “accident” of note. The investigator said in the same report that the builders’ work site history over the last 18 months indicated there had been “at least two other accidents involving railway equipment.”

Indeed, in a second 34-page report written a few months earlier in the spring of 2022, the same inspector visited worksites on the Two Mountains line and said he had “observed various situations of non-compliance or deviation” from the law on workplace health and safety.

They included workers wearing standard instead of specialized clothing for tasks like welding, which he said showed “the marks of molten metal pitting (spot burns).”

The company was also warned it should have gotten proper authorization from Hydro-Quebec to work near power lines.

A crane is seen operating at the worksite near power lines on May 31, 2022. (Source: CNESST)

NouvLR declined CTV News’ request for an interview but, in a statement, said in part that the construction and engineering company strives for the highest health and safety standards for its workers.

“NouvLR takes each CNESST observation as an opportunity to improve its health and safety program. Learning from our mistakes is one of our core values, to draw lessons from an incident and improve our performance on a daily basis,” wrote spokesperson Marc-Andre Lefebvre .

Lefebvre also said that receiving infraction notices is a normal part of the construction industry noting “the exceptional scope of work” involved with the REM project in particular, which has 30 worksites and thousands of workers.

A spokesperson for CDPQ-Infra, the principal contractor managing the light rail project, also sent a statement that said they prioritize safety for employees and workers.

“We are monitoring the current situation closely,” said Marc-Andre Tremblay.

Boisjoly blamed part of the problems on the shortage of construction workers in Quebec needed to advance the many projects currently underway and, as a result, the lack of training for new workers who are picking up the slack.

Boisjoly agreed that the REM project was the first of its kind in Quebec — a giant project — but indicated that safety could not be compromised and he is calling for significant improvements to protect workers.

With files from CTV News Montreal’s Matt Gilmour