REGINA - A senior official in Saskatchewan says a supervision problem prompted the government to revoke an exemption that allowed a SaskPower contractor to use workers who weren't electricians to install smart meters.
Mike Carr, who is the deputy minister for Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, says several months after the exemption for Pennsylvania-based Grid One Solutions was approved in July 2013, his department began having concerns.
Carr didn't have specific details about what specifically was wrong with Grid One's supervision, but he says an officer's inspection in early 2014 showed there wasn't "appropriate supervision of the workers."
The exemption was revoked in February 2014 and Grid One's employees were then hired by SaskPower.
Carr says that was acceptable to his department because it meant SaskPower would be in charge of supervising the workers.
The Opposition NDP says documents show there were several incidents of smart meter malfunctions in August 2013 when SaskPower used non-electricians to install the devices.
The province announced Friday the Crown Investment Corporation will head an investigation into the smart meter program, which SaskPower has halted following eight fires between May and July of this year.
Carr said the workers were trained for the installations and there were no reports to the province of any workers being injured.
He said his department was concerned only with worker safety — he said he couldn't comment on the quality or the competency of the installations.
"It's the responsibility of the project owners and the employer to ensure that the work is performed up to standards and that it meets the specifications of the work while maintaining the safety of homeowners and the public. There's a very clear division of responsibilities here," Carr said.
No one from Grid One Solutions could be reached for comment on Saturday.
Sensus, the company which manufactured the smart meters, stressed in a news release earlier this month that careful installation and training of meter installers is critical. It said that included the examination of meter boxes and wiring at installation.
When asked in an email on Saturday whether the use of non-certified electricians for installation was a concern, Sensus spokeswoman Linda Palmer noted the company's position on installation was contained in the earlier release.
Carr said the exemption to allow the less-qualified workers was sought because there was a shortage of electricians available in Saskatchewan.
He said SaskPower needed the 500,000 meters installed in a short timeframe, and economic pressures limited the number of available electricians.
"The exemption request that we received did suggest that there were going to be very specific requirements of the work undertaken and that the electricians they might normally use on the work were in short supply given the economic demand and pressures of the economy," Carr said.
SaskPower, too, noted in an emailed statement that a shortage of electricians was behind its request for the exemption.
Deputy NDP leader Trent Wotherspoon said Friday that documents show the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union sent several letters to the government expressing concern over the use of unqualified labour for installing the smart meters.
SaskPower, however, noted in its statement that the electricians union and Unifor actually signed a request to get the exemption extended, and it said other jurisdictions used the same method for smart meter installation.
The utility said it sought an extension to the exemption, but withdrew the request when the labour relations department informed the company it was no longer required. SaskPower said it was told by the department that the utility was approved as a training institution that could train and certify its own workers.
—by Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
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