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Contractor sentenced to 60 days in jail for safety infractions

A warning sign noting the presence of asbestos in Victoria, Oct. 3, 2007.

Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

A Lower Mainland demolition contractor who repeatedly exposed unprotected employees, many of them teenagers, to deadly asbestos has been sent to prison for 60 days, a rare example of a jail term for workplace safety infractions.

Lawyer Scott Nielsen said it was the first time in 25 years of pursuing unsafe employers through the courts that one of them had gone to jail.

"This is a positive step in the direction of workers' safety. It sends a strong message," Mr. Nielsen said.

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After Tuesday's brief court hearing, contractor Arthur Moore was led away by sheriffs to begin serving his sentence.

Mr. Moore had been found guilty of contempt of court for ignoring numerous safety orders and a court injunction to halt work practices that imperilled his employees.

"[He deliberately put]workers at risk by exposing them to asbestos fibres, a deadly carcinogen," B.C. Supreme Court Justice Richard Goepel said.

"Mr. Moore's indifference to the lives and safety of his workers, and his open defiance of the injunction, requires a severe response."

Mr. Nielsen said he was not at all disappointed the prison sentence fell short of the six months to a year he had asked the court to impose. "I think the court meant to send a message – and they did."

According to evidence accepted at earlier court proceedings, Mr. Moore specialized in extremely low bids to demolish old residences – often hiring people as young as 14 from halfway houses to do the work – without testing sites for the presence of asbestos.

Employees were sent in without masks, special gloves or any other protective clothing to guard against exposure to asbestos fibres, which can lead to asbestosis.

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In 2009, 44 per cent of all work-related deaths in B.C. were tied to long-ago exposure to asbestos.

Within 24 hours of a Supreme Court injunction issued against him to abide by workplace safety orders that he stop putting his employees at risk, Mr. Moore was back doing the same thing, court was told.

For union leaders, however, the unusual prison term handed out in the case was bittersweet. While pleased that Mr. Moore was sent to jail, they were unhappy it was for only 60 days.

"These workers face a potential death sentence from cancer, and Arthur Moore will walk free in two months. That's totally wrong," said Lee Loftus, president of the BC and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council.

"It's a victory, someone finally going to jail for their activities … but we are also extremely disappointed. For what he did, it just doesn't make sense to get 60 days for that," Mr. Loftus said outside the court.

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair agreed.

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He pointed out that Mr. Moore was sentenced for contempt of court, not for the actual act of giving "a whole bunch of workers, including a 14-year-old kid, a potential death sentence for asbestosis. He should have got a year."

Nonetheless, Mr. Sinclair said, "the bottom line is he got something, and an employer in this province is going to see the inside of a jail."

Both union leaders called for Mr. Moore to face criminal prosecution over his unsafe work practices.

In meting out the sentence, Judge Goepel noted that Mr. Moore, who did not have a lawyer, apologized to the court and was now doing community service work for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

But he told the contractor: "You deliberately flaunted for an extended time a court order intended to protect worker safety. ... Such conduct cannot go unpunished."

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