The BC NDP is calling for quick action on the recommendations of a coroner's jury, to prevent more deaths like those of the three men killed on a South Langley farm.
On May 16, the jury returned with 15 recommendations for the Ministry of the Environment, for WorkSafe BC, and for the BC Ambulance Service.
Ut Van Tran, Han Duc Pham, and Jimmy Chi Wai Chan died on Sept. 5, 2008, when they were overcome with noxious fumes in a pump shed on the site of a mushroom farm and composting operation on 16th Avenue.
Two more men, Michael Phan and Thang Tchen, suffered severe brain injuries after exposure to hydrogen-sulphide gas.
Two of the men had originally been sent into the shed to unclog a blocked pipe - despite the owners having been advised to use a professional sewage service just hours before. The men used a screwdriver to partially unblock the pipe, and the gas, which had been building up for days, rushed out. It filled the pump shed, and three more men who rushed in to try and help were also overcome by the fumes and lack of oxygen.
The NDP is now urging the provincial Liberal government to put the jury's suggestions into action.
"Even one death is too many in any workplace. We need to ensure worker safety measures in all industries are fully regulated and strictly enforced, and that the right deterrents are in place," said MLA Raj Chouhan, the NDP's labour critic.
Several NDP politicians were present for parts of the inquest.
"These workers were the primary breadwinners for 13 children. They have struggled emotionally and financially in the aftermath," said opposition leader Adrian Dix.
The three recommendations for the Ministry of the Environment were:
. amend mushroom composting regulations to require that "brown water" be aerated in tanks,
. amend the regulations to require that a registered engineer supervise and approve the design and construction of key parts of the facilities, and
. to be more proactive in enforcing regulations and helping municipal governments deal with violators.
For WorkSafe, the jury recommended:
. working with the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association (FARSHA) to enhance confined space education and enforcement,
. work with FARSHA to set up a confined space centre of excellence to provide information about the risks, and how to minimize them,
. whange health and safety regulations to require yearly reporting from businesses owners that they are complying with the rules,
. amend the rules to force owners to identify all confined spaces, and their plans related to them,
. amend the rules to require that every new worker, manager, and owner complete a twoday training course on occupational health and safety in their first month on the job,
. change the rules to require every existing worker receive the same training,
. inspections should include a check of occupational health and safety plans, with training records,
. more WorkSafe agricultural inspectors,
. more prevention officers,
. ensure all confined spaces are labeled, possibly in languages other than English where appropriate, and
. start random surprise inspections in high-risk sectors of industry.
For the BC Ambulance Service, the jury recommended:
. each ambulance should be equipped with an atmosphere testing meter.
The inquest heard testimony from WorkSafe investigators that, horrible as the tragedy was, it could have been even worse.
If the pipe had been fully unblocked, it might have spewed enough gas to kill many more people, possibly including neighbours.
The inquest also heard that safety training was essentially non-existant at the farm. The owners themselves claimed to be totally ignorant of any safety regulations, yet former consultants said the owners were masters of avoiding or ignoring the rules.
The buildings, including the barns, tanks, and pump shed involved in creating compost, were not well designed, with WorkSafe investigator Mohinder Bhatti describing it as done "on the back of a cigarette pack."
Langley Township had been in a legal battle with the farm for months before the tragedy, over a failure to file building permits, and over a noxious smell that had made the farm notorious among its neighbours.
The business went bankrupt in the wake of the deaths, and while the owners pleaded guilty to several violations of workplace safety rules and were ordered to pay fines, it is unlikely that much of the money will ever be collected.