Nearly two years after a deadly industrial accident at a Langley mushroom farm, the B.C. criminal justice branch is assessing potential charges against those responsible for the workplace following an investigation by WorkSafeBC.
Three men were killed and two others seriously injured on Sept. 5, 2008, when they were overcome by noxious gases or lack of oxygen in a pump house at the farm owned by Farmers’ Fresh Mushrooms Inc.
All five victims were fathers with school-age children. They were all Vietnamese-Canadians, and the B.C. Federation of Labour has alleged that the men did not have adequate safety training and equipment.
“What’s really hard is, this is just the first stage of the process,” said Adrian Dix, the NDP MLA who has worked with the families of the victims since the accident. “It’s a terrible, terrible struggle. These were the main breadwinners for 13 children.”
From a preliminary investigation, it appears two employees were attempting repairs in the pump house that regulates the mushroom compost mix. The confined space may have contained deadly levels of ammonia or methane, and both died.
The tragedy multiplied as their co-workers rushed in to try to save them. A preliminary coroner’s report indicated the victims were overcome by toxic gas or lack of oxygen, and then drowned in the knee-deep wastewater.
“They behaved in a way that by any standard was heroic,” Mr. Dix said. “They deserve our respect and our support.”
Neil MacKenzie, a spokesman for the criminal justice branch of the B.C. Ministry of Attorney-General, confirmed on Monday that WorkSafeBC has turned over its report on the accident to determine if charges can be laid.
“We have the initial investigation report and we’ll have to review the full investigation package before we complete any charge assessment,” Mr. MacKenzie said. Crown counsel must make its determination before the second anniversary of the accident. “We’ll be giving the file priority,” he said.
Donna Freeman, a spokesperson for WorkSafeBC, said Tuesday the investigation was completed in the last few weeks. The report will be made public if no charges are laid, otherwise it will become part of the investigation and cannot be released until the judicial process is completed.
Under the Workers Compensation Act of B.C., those parties with legal responsibility for the workplace can face fines or jail time.
Ms. Freeman said the investigation has been the most complex in her agency’s history, resulting in tens of thousands of pages of documents.
WorkSafeBC’s investigations do not often result in charges. It conducts an average of 150 investigations each year. From 1995 to 2000, the agency referred 28 cases to the Crown to consider for prosecution. Of these, 21 resulted in convictions and seven in acquittals or stays of charges. The total amount of fines imposed from the prosecutions during this period was $534,500. The highest fine imposed was $85,000, and one case resulted in imprisonment for 45 days.
Labour Minister Murray Coell noted that WorkSafeBC has inspected every mushroom farm in B.C. in the wake of that accident. As well, it has ramped up inspections of the agriculture industry in general, tripling the number of inspections conducted each year in the last decade. He acknowledged that is cold comfort to the families in this case.
“It’s unfortunate it has taken so long for the families,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of her mother, Phuong Lee, 14-year-old Tracey Phan said Tuesday: “My mother hopes [the report] will help bring justice to all the five families, including my dad.” Ms. Phan’s father, Michael Phan, remains in the hospital in a coma as a result of injuries he sustained in the 2008 accident. Her mother has not been able to work since the accident, and the family has struggled financially, Ms. Phan said.
“My mother would like people to know that my dad is a hero and a brave person,” she said. “And she would like to thank everyone for helping us over the past two years.”
As published in The Globe and Mail (May 19, 2010) by Justine Hunter.