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Fine for death of three Western Forest Products' workers criticized as inadequate

BRITISH COLUMBIA (From news reports) -- WorkSafeBC has fined a forest company $29,049 for the deaths of three workers in a "high-risk" railway accident on northern Vancouver Island. That's barely five per cent of the $514,991 fine levied against one municipality for a separate work-place violation related to traffic-control practices in which no employees were injured, much less killed.

Details posted this week on WorkSafeBC's website reveal that workers with Western Forest Products Inc. were moving railcars loaded with logs on a railway siding, near Woss, in April 2017. Eleven loaded cars on the Englewood Railway rolled out of the siding and onto the main line and struck a maintenance vehicle, pushing it into a backhoe. Three workers died, two were seriously injured.

Western Forest Products reported a net income of $69.2 million in 2018.

The WorkSafeBC investigation determined that a derail device intended to stop free-rolling railcars had not been installed with proper ties and ballast. "The firm is being penalized for failing to ensure the health and safety of all workers," WorkSafeBC states. "This was a high-risk violation."

A separate report by the federal Transportation Safety Board in December 2018 concluded, in part: "If emergency procedures relating to hazards during switching operations, including radio communication procedures, are not practised on a regular basis, there is an increased risk that the procedures will not be followed in an emergency situation."

This isn't the only case in which a relatively small fine was levied against a company for a worker's death.

This week's web postings by WorkSafeBC also show that Craftsman Glass Inc. was fined $2,500 after a worker fell almost four metres from the unguarded edge of a mezzanine. Temporary guardrails had been removed for the worker to perform the work task, and no other form of fall protection had been in place. The firm had also not conducted a risk assessment, established safe work practices, or provided the worker with fall protection equipment or training to safely perform work at heights.

These two cases involving work-place deaths contrast sharply with the $514,991 fine levied against the Township of Langley in May 2018 for a work-place violation having far less serious consequences.

Asked to explain the wide discrepancy, Craig Fitzsimmons, director of government, community and media relations for WorkSafeBC, said in a written statement that the amount of a penalty is based on the nature of the violation, an employer's history of violations and the size of the employer's payroll.

"The investigation determined that the violation was specific to the Englewood forestry operation," he said. "Consequently, the calculation of the penalty to Western Forest Products was based on the payroll at its Englewood location."

The primary purpose of an administrative penalty is to motivate the employer receiving the penalty -- and other employers -- to comply with occupational health and safety rules, and to keep their workplaces safe, Fitzsimmons added.

Subsequent to the three deaths, Western Forest Products ceased all rail operations at its Englewood forest operation. All logs are now hauled by truck.

Babita Khunkhun, spokeswoman for Western Forest Products, said in a written statement: "The safety and security of our employees has and always will be our number one priority. This was a tragic incident that will forever impact the families of those lost and injured, all of those who worked alongside them and our company as a whole. We continue to work to ensure that families, workers and all affected by this tragic incident are supported in any way we can."

Steve Hunt, a western Canada director with the United Steelworkers, representing forest workers, said the fines are insufficient and he would like the RCMP to consider charges of criminal negligence causing death in the case.

"Not enough done," he said. "That's not even $10,000 per life. They were negligent."

Bill C-45, the so-called Westray Bill, named after a coal mining disaster took 26 lives in Nova Scotia and enacted in 2004, established new legal duties for workplace health and safety, and established serious penalties for corporate offenders in cases of injury or death.

In the Langley case, WorkSafeBC concluded that traffic-control plans at three sites operated by a contractor "were inadequate or were not being followed correctly." One worker, rather than the required two, was employed at certain locations, adequate escape routes were lacking and one supervisor was not "adequately trained or certified in traffic control."

WorkSafeBC found that the municipality "failed to ensure that effective traffic control was used whenever traffic could be hazardous to workers, a high-risk and repeated violation."

Langley has requested a review of the fine.

In another recent public-sector case, North Cowichan was fined $133,926 in January 2018 after an employee was seriously injured while working on the vertical chute of an ice-resurfacing machine.

WorkSafeBC determined that the equipment was not locked out while maintenance work was done, no written lockout procedures for the ice resurfacing machine were available and the worker had not been properly trained.

In another timber-industry case, WorkSafeBC fined West Fraser Mills Ltd. $637,415 in March this year after a worker with a subcontractor's firm was seriously injured while vacuuming ash at a fibreboard plant in Quesnel.

The investigation cited an adequate assessment of the risks associated with accumulated hot ash, adding: "Safe work procedures had not been communicated to the subcontractor firm, and the subcontractor's workers had not been trained in the work task."

West Fraser is seeking a review of the fine.

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