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opinion

Something remarkable has happened in British Columbia. An employer has been criminally charged because of a worker's death.

Last year, WorkSafeBC counted 173 workplace deaths in the province. The toll was higher than normal – on average, about 130 people die on the job each year in B.C. Despite those numbers, the Stave Lake Quarries case is the first that anyone can recall where the Criminal Justice Branch has approved charges.

It took eight years to build a case around the death of Kelsey Anne Kristian, who was killed at the age of 22, in the afternoon of her second day on the job at the Stave Lake Quarries.

An investigation by the provincial mines ministry found that Ms. Kristian, who had no previous experience with heavy trucks, was assigned to drive a hauler after some basic on-the-job training. The coroner's report states she was parked on the crest of a hill when the heavy truck rolled out of control and flipped, pinning her under the cab. The air brakes had drained, the transmission was in neutral, the mechanical parking brake was not set and chocks had not been set against the tires – investigators concluded she had not been trained to safely park the vehicle.

Two men, James Derek Holmes and Garry Glen Klassen, and Stave Lake Quarries Inc. and 426969 B.C. Ltd., have been charged with criminal negligence causing death, by allegedly failing to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to Ms. Kristian.

None of the allegations has been proved in court.

This could be an important test case for B.C. employers and workers alike.

Gord Macatee was the government's special adviser tasked with figuring out why WorkSafeBC failed to secure charges in two sawmill explosions that left a total of four men dead, and dozens more seriously injured. Mr. Macatee delivered a "best practices" report to government last summer that, among other things, urged the province to consider a dedicated Crown counsel for investigation oversight and prosecution.

There was a brief interval in which B.C. adopted that model. In 2001, WorkSafeBC agreed to fund a dedicated prosecutor to provide legal advice for investigations and to conduct prosecutions.

The arrangement lapsed after just one year.

Shane Simpson, the NDP critic for workplace safety, believes the government is resisting the call for a dedicated prosecutor because of the cost. He said they should look at the 2001 agreement where the employer-funded workplace safety agency funded the position. "I don't have a problem with that," Mr. Simpson said.

Shirley Bond, the minister responsible for workplace safety, has introduced legislation this spring to improve WorkSafeBC's investigation powers. As well, the Criminal Justice Branch has promised to ensure it can provide Crown prosecutors with expertise in occupational, health and safety matters. "We hope with these changes, employers will be held accountable whenever there are conditions that establish employer negligence or violation of the law," Ms. Bond said in a written statement.

That is just a start, says Steve Hunt, director of the western region of the United Steelworkers union. Mr. Hunt has lobbied for years to have a dedicated Crown prosecutor to ensure prosecution in cases of potential criminal negligence.

Mr. Hunt began his career in mining and has long campaigned on safety in the workplace. Almost 20 years ago, he was called as an expert witness at the public inquiry into 26 deaths at the Westray coal mine in Nova Scotia. He testified about why workers will put themselves in harm's way on the job.

Lulled by the prospect of a decent paycheque, workers can play down risk when the boss says it's okay. "I call it economic heroin – these jobs often pay decent money, especially for a young worker just starting out," Mr. Hunt said in an interview.

That inquiry led to changes to the Criminal Code to make it easier to convict employers when someone is killed or injured at work. In B.C. it has yet to lead to a conviction.

In the prosecution of Ms. Kristian's death, there is a potential to create a legacy from this tragedy – safer work places.

"I have never advocated that a whole lot of people should go to jail," he said. The point is to have a clear deterrent: "People should know if you are negligent in someone's death on the job, then you might go to jail."