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Finger points at stage owner in collapse

Bluesfest structure poorly built, violated provincial laws, report finds
By Chris Cobb, Ottawa Citizen November 19, 2012

The massive stage that collapsed during a violent windstorm at Ottawa Bluesfest 2011 was poorly constructed and violated several Ontario Health and Safety laws and building regulations, according to a long-awaited provincial labour ministry report.

The report, released exclusively to the Citizen under Ontario’s freedom-of-information law, also says Groupe Berger, the Montreal-based owner of the stage, failed to properly protect the safety of stage workers.

The ministry report comes in two parts, one written by Health and Safety inspector Jason Gordon, the other by engineer Robert Molina, who said there was no inspection conducted by a licensed Ontario engineer either during the erection of the stage or after a windstorm at the Bluesfest site a week before the collapse.

According to the report, an onstage weather monitor revealed that the massive stage lifted and collapsed when the wind reached 117 kilometres an hour.

The crucial factor in the collapse, according to Molina, was Berger’s failure to remove side and rear wind walls when the winds began to pick up.

“The wind loads exerted on the stage as a result of not removing the side and rear walls exceeded the design parameters,” Molina wrote.

“Had the side and rear walls been removed as required at 80 km/h the stage would have resisted a wind event of 117 km/h,” Molina wrote.

Without the wind walls, he added, the stage was designed to resist winds up to 120 km/h.

Investigators said they were unable to find an operating manual with a procedure for removing the side and rear walls of the stage.

“It would seem that this procedure does not exist in written form since it was never provided to the Ministry of Labour,” Molina’s report says.

The stage, rented by Blues-fest from Groupe Berger, qualifies as a building under Ontario regulations and is subject to all of the same safety precautions, say the engineering report.

The report contains no criticism of the Bluesfest organization itself.

The giant stage, roughly 45 metres wide and 17 metres high, collapsed during a performance by American rock band Cheap Trick. Every other structure in the vicinity, including tents and video screens, remained upright and intact.

Three people required hospital treatment and others were treated for minor injuries. Two Cheap Trick trucks parked behind the stage broke its fall. Workers on and around the stage when it came down were initially convinced that the collapse had killed many people.

Both reports note that the violent storm that hit the stage a week before the collapse, just before a performance by the band Black Keys, was a crucial factor in what happened later. During that first storm, stage staff released pressure on the stage by cutting easily removed zip-ties or Bungee straps.

“When the walls were secured after this event,” writes safety inspector Gordon, “they were secured using a different method, including the use of cable ties. This caused a change in the procedure for release of the wind walls (no longer able to cut with knives). Witness statements indicate that “wind walls” were unable to be released as the stage hands were unable to cut or release the cable ties.

“Groupe Berger failed as an employer to take the reasonable precaution of releasing the wind walls despite being aware of the forecast for damaging winds, therefore failing to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”

Engineer Molina also noted “a number of construction irregularities,” including segments of columns that were secured by fewer bolts than required, and the use of bolts of the wrong size.

“Although irregularities were not a direct cause of the stage collapse it demonstrates poor workmanship in the assembly of the stage,” he wrote. These were examples, he said, of “discrepancies between the engineered design of the stage and the actual assembly.”

Groupe Berger spokesman Stéphane Berger refused comment when contacted by the Citizen on Saturday, saying he’d have nothing to say until he had read the full ministry report. He gave a similar reply to an email sent to him Sunday outlining the report’s main points.

According to the health and safety report, Stéphane Berger personally “failed as a supervisor” by not warning stage hands that there was potential danger from the impending storm.

In a previous interview, Berger told the Citizen his company operates at the highest standards and since its mega-stage collapse has worked to strengthen safety procedures. It has continued to rent its stages to major events across Canada. Cheap Trick, however, has refused to play on Berger stages since the collapse.

Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

The health and safety report also says Groupe Berger failed to comply with an order after the collapse to provide the ministry with a copy of the “Operations Management Plan” specific to the stage and its set up at Bluesfest.

In all, Gordon’s report lists 19 Groupe Berger “failings” under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The ministry announced in July it would not be laying any charges in the collapse, but has not elaborated on how it reached that decision.

The ministry has redacted numerous documents and other exhibits for personal privacy reasons and removed entire documents it received from Groupe Berger after the company objected to them being released publicly. The documents include the contract between Berger and Bluesfest.

Also withheld was an internal memo that apparently contained legal advice from ministry lawyers.

Groupe Berger was criticized for its work when two of its scaffolding towers collapsed during preparations for a festival at Lévis, Que., in August 2011, a month or so after the Bluesfest stage collapse. In that case, Berger blamed the festival organizers and the organizers blamed Berger.

The Bluesfest stage collapse was one of several similar incidents – none involving Berger – that took place in North America and Europe, including a tragedy at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven and injured dozens of others during a storm. An investigation blamed the collapse on faulty construction and many of the injuries on poor emergency procedures. In June, a stage collapse north of Toronto killed a guitar technician prior to a concert by the English band Radiohead.

For its 2012 festival, Blues-fest rented its main stage from another company and introduced several new safety features, including the hiring of an independent on-site engineer and a private weather service.

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