07/13/2012 08:02 EDT | Updated 09/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Deadly scaffold collapse leads to $340K in penalties

A construction company in Ontario and its owner have been fined $342,500 in connection with the deaths of four workers who fell 13 storeys after a scaffold collapsed three years ago.

The conviction for criminal negligence causing death against Metron Construction was the first of its kind in Ontario under the Criminal Code.

The incident occurred on Christmas Eve in 2009, when a highrise-suspended scaffold, known as a swing stage, snapped from a building in Toronto, sending four workers plunging 13 floors to their deaths. One worker survived.

Metron pleaded guilty to criminal negligence last month.

The owner of the company, Joel Swartz, had charges of criminal negligence causing death against him dropped by prosecutors who said they didn't believe there was a reasonable chance of a conviction.

Ontario Justice Robert Bigelow said Friday the fines levied should send a message to companies that the court does not take workplace safety lightly.

Owner charged for breach of provincial legislation

Bigelow acknowledged that he was dealing with a serious breach of safety legislation, but also said that the accused had worked for more than 20 years in the construction industry without any violations.

The company will have to pay $100,000 within 30 days and another $100,000 within 12 months.

Swartz was also sentenced to pay $90,000 for the four charges under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act in the four deaths.

The company and Swartz were also ordered to pay a victim surcharge totalling $52,500 — bringing the total fines to $342,500.

The Crown had been seeking a fine of up to $1 million.

There were a number of safety violations that emerged during the judicial process. The supervisor working on the apartment building allowed six people on to the swing, when there were safety lines for only two of them.

Court documents show that three of the four men who died had marijuana in their systems before going up to repair the balconies. One of the three was a supervisor.

The swing stage was also later determined to be hazardous.

Fines called 'a disgrace'

"Any fine imposed must be substantial enough to warn others that the offence will not be tolerated," said Bigelow.

Neither Swartz nor any of the victims' families were present at the proceedings Friday.

Outside the courthouse, Sid Ryan, head of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said the fines were a slap on the wrist and a "disgrace." Labour activists had said they wanted to see jail time, not just fines.

"They'll just build this into the cost of doing business," Ryan said.

The company also admitted to not keeping proper training records or ensuring that the scaffold was properly maintained.

On average, between 80 and 90 workers a year die in Ontario in workplace mishaps, according to provincial statistics.