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B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair, left, is flanked by family members of tragic workplace incidents as he speaks after meeting with Justice Minister Shirley Bond and Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid in Vancouver on Tuesday. (DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press)
B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair, left, is flanked by family members of tragic workplace incidents as he speaks after meeting with Justice Minister Shirley Bond and Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid in Vancouver on Tuesday. (DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press)

B.C. urged to toughen measures to prosecute workplace deaths Add to ...

It’s been almost four years since Tracey Phan’s father died at a mushroom farm near Vancouver, one of three workers killed when toxic gas leaked into a small shed on the site.

An investigation by WorkSafe BC, the province’s workers’ compensation board, later identified a litany of violations that contributed to the deaths, and the farm’s owners were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars after pleading guilty to breaking occupational health and safety laws.

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But Ms. Phan says she still feels the justice system has failed her father, Michael Phan. No one was ever sent to jail, and even the fines haven’t been fully paid by the now-bankrupt farm.

“I just feel like I’m going nowhere with all this – I’ve seen no change at all,” Ms. Phan told a news conference in Vancouver on Tuesday, after she and several other people whose family members were victims of workplace accidents met with provincial politicians.

“I just really want the loophole in our system to be filled. Nobody should be committing these acts and then file bankruptcy and get away with it.”

Ms. Phan and other family members representing five separate workplace accidents joined the British Columbia Federation of Labour in a meeting Tuesday with the province’s justice and labour ministers.

The meeting was designed to highlight what the labour federation describes as lax enforcement of Criminal Code provisions targeting negligent employers.

In the case of the Langley mushroom farm, three workers died and two others received severe neurological injuries on Sept. 5, 2008. Workers at the farm were attempting to clear a clogged pipe when a deadly cloud of hydrogen sulfide spewed out.

The farm and its owners pleaded guilty to failing to educate and supervise their workers and failing to follow proper safety guidelines. They were handed several fines that totalled $350,000, but A1 Mushroom, now bankrupt, has yet to pay, the victims’ families say.

Workplace2

Federation president Jim Sinclair says the mushroom farm accident is just one of numerous examples of the legal system – police, prosecutors, the courts – failing to throw the book at negligent employers in cases where workers are killed or seriously injured.

“You shouldn’t be able to walk away, close up your company, not pay the fine and suffer no consequences when you’re grossly negligent in killing workers,” Mr. Sinclair told reporters after the meeting with the provincial ministers.

“It should be unacceptable to kill workers in B.C., and if you’re negligent, there should be consequences.”

In his meeting with Attorney-General Shirley Bond and Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, Mr. Sinclair said he offered three recommendations to ensure such cases are handled properly.

Mr. Sinclair said the Crown should appoint a dedicated prosecutor to deal with serious workplace accidents and the police should be brought in to investigate any incident in which a worker is severely injured or killed. He also said the police must be properly trained to investigate occupational laws.

Neither Ms. Bond nor Ms. MacDiarmid was available for an interview to discuss the meeting, but Mr. Sinclair said he was encouraged by their response. He said the ministers agreed to look into those issues and meet again in several weeks.

“I’m encouraged to this extent: At least, for the first time, there was an acknowledgment the system is not working,” he said.

“Will this mean the system will change overnight? No. ... We have to leave here today feeling that at least we’ve opened the door this much for justice, and we’re going to keep our foot in that door.”

Mr. Sinclair noted new Criminal Code provisions were approved by Parliament in 2004 in what was known as the Westray Bill. The law made it easier for employers to be charged with criminal negligence.

However, Mr. Sinclair said the law is rarely used. In the eight years since the law was passed, there have only been a handful of cases that have resulted in a trial and no jail time, he said.

The Westray Mine, located in Plymouth, N.S., blew up on May 9, 1992, killing 26 miners.

The mine’s owner, Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc., and two of its former managers were charged with manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death, but the Crown eventually concluded convictions were unlikely and the case fell apart.

A public inquiry into the disaster concluded Westray management was ultimately responsible for conditions at the colliery, while also blaming administrators who tolerated poor safety practices and outdated mining laws.

The disaster and subsequent public inquiry inspired charges at the provincial and federal level, and is routinely invoked in debates about workers’ safety and the laws that are designed to protect them.

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