October 15, 2020 marks the six-year anniversary of the release of the Report of the Elliot Lake Inquiry by Hon. Paul Bélanger. I had only started at OSPE a few months before the report came out, and I remember delving into the findings of the report over my first few weeks, trying to understand how such a failure of the system the public relies on to keep us safe at work, home and at play had led to such a dramatic loss of life. Having spent 15 years in the occupational health and safety prevention system prior to joining OSPE, I unfortunately had grown accustomed to seeing complacency and lack of focus on preventative health and safety measures dramatically affect workplaces and families, but never have I witnessed how a failure had effected an entire community the way the Elliot Lake tragedy did.
Thinking I understood how catastrophic events lead to systemic changes, I naively looked forward to the lessons learned outlined in the report, and the carefully worded recommendations put forward by Justice Bélanger. These were supposed to establish and reinforce the necessary checks and balances to ensure these types of events never happened again.
Fast forward six years, and reviewing a few recent developments, it is surprising how little has changed. In March, 2019, Ontario Coroner Dr. David Cameron, officiated an inquest into the death of Radiohead Drum Technician Scott Johnson, who died as a result of a partial stage collapse at Downsview Park. Many of the recommendations in April 2019 mirrored the recommendations Justice Bélanger wrote in his report, five years earlier. There was enough blame in these two inquests to go around to the engineers involved, plus inspectors, building officials, local governments, and owners/operators.
The next month, May 2019, PEO issued the results of an external regulatory review conducted by the UK Professional Standards Authority. These results highlighted significant deficiencies within the Regulator of the practice of Professional Engineering in Ontario. I would speculate that a similar review of regulators in other provinces would find similar deficiencies; as the government of British Columbia recently did when they conducted their own regulatory reviews of five regulators, including engineers and geoscientists.
Just a few weeks ago, OSPE published a blog outlining the story of OSPE member Mr. Gerald Catt, P.Eng., who had his engineering seal duplicated and used on building documents several dozen times over the past few months without his knowledge. Especially maddening to Gerald is that this exact incident happened to him several years ago, and while that individual was charged by the OPP, it seems like no preventative measures were put in place.
If we examine the list of buildings where he is the “Engineer on Record” but which he did not actually work on, we can determine there are close to 100 buildings occupied in Ontario where no engineer has actually reviewed or deemed safe—they simply bear the fraudulent stamp. Further review of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests has shown that some of his original drawings have had his seal removed, “allegedly” altered, dated and then sealed by another Professional Engineer after the building has already been built! This means the “official drawings” of the building don’t match the actual dimensions of the building, and certain elements of the design doesn’t meet the building and/or fire codes, yet the buildings are fully occupied and certified as safe by local building officials. This is incredibly dangerous as it bypasses all the rules and regulations put in place to protect the public.
When I reached out to other OSPE members to see if they were aware of similar types of incidents within their networks, many responded with similar horror stories, albeit not to the volume of Mr. Catt’s experience. Is Gerald just unlucky? Or maybe we’re lucky, as he spent several hundred of hours of his own time and thousands of dollars of his own money to launch his own investigation when no one else offered to help. As he told me, he could have saved himself a lot of time, money and grief if he just looked the other way. Fortunately, his duty to his profession and the public, and his commitment to the oath of ethics he took seriously, and so he raised the alarm.
Six years later, are we any closer to implementing safe regulations? Are the bodies that were established to protect the public interest acting accordingly, or are they acting in their own self-interest? Who, in turn, is responsible for holding Regulators accountable? Who is responsible for holding governments accountable? At what point do the practitioners in a profession say enough is enough and demand more from everyone in their professional network, their industry, and their sector?
Many of the deficiencies identified in the Elliot Lake Report, and echoed in the Scott Johnson Death Inquest, still exist. OSPE’s recent conversations with PEO, the Ontario Building Officials Association, officials and Ministers in the Government of Ontario and others have not provided us with the confidence that these shortcomings will be addressed anytime soon.
One of the main recommendations is for Ontario to follow the lead of every other provincial regulator in Ontario, North America, and almost every other jurisdiction in the world by implementing a mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) program. It was a key recommendation in the three reports highlighted earlier. If you were to survey 1000 residents in Ontario and asked them if they expected Professional Engineers in Ontario to have implemented a mandatory CPD Program for engineers, I would expect over 90% would have answered yes, because they feel it is the bare minimum requirement to maintain a licence. In the recent PEO Registrar’s report, compliance to the voluntary PEAK program is down to 15% (as of March 2020). OSPE feels this is unacceptable.
What will it take for true regulatory reform to happen? Will it take another colossal structural failure that results in significant loss of life? Will it take a government that is looking to move forward with a political agenda? Or will it take the practitioners to say “Enough!”, we must speak out and call out the system that is broken, fix it, the way Gerald Catt, P.Eng tried to do.
OSPE members have a small window of time to grasp the opportunity to call for change and redesign a system that puts public safety first. A system where modern regulators establish best practices, respond quickly to emerging disciplines, provide quality assurance and assesses competencies of its practitioners, all while effectively identifying and disciplining those that don’t measure up to the high level of shared standards that is needed.
If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity now, and wait until the next catastrophe, then governments will be forced to act and implement a solution that is neither designed in collaboration with the profession and the public, nor will it be effective or efficient.
It’s up to you OSPE members. The time is now. We can’t wait another six years.