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B.C. government, WorkSafeBC support farm inquest recommendations

By By Brian Platt, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — B.C.'s government said it is ready to take action on the recommendations of a coroner's jury around the deaths of three Langley, B.C., mushroom farm workers. But some of the jury's recommendations may prove difficult to implement, given B.C.'s agricultural sector covers thousands of workers doing everything from cattle wrangling to strawberry picking.

The jury made 15 recommendations after hearing about a series of safety blunders that led to the deaths of the men who were overcome by toxic gas while they attempted to clear a blocked pipe.

Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and WorkSafeBC officials said Thursday they are fully supportive of the 11 recommendations directed at WorkSafeBC.

Other recommendations were made to the Ministry of Environment and the B.C. Ambulance Service.

"WorkSafe has told me they are beginning work on all of these," MacDiarmid said. "When they develop regulations, they have to do a consultation ... So they'll go ahead and do that, and then see how they're going to roll it out."

One recommendation would require every agricultural worker, manager and owner in B.C. to be certified in occupational safety. Currently, all occupational safety training is done on a voluntary basis. The certification would take place through a two-day training course.

Roberta Ellis, WorkSafeBC's senior vice-president for human resources, said such a change would have to respect the enormous differences between different agricultural operations.

"It's a very large sector," said Ellis. "The issues for composting, or the issues for mushroom farming, are different than the issues for vineyards, or berry picking, or hog farming. So we will want to look at that with our stakeholders, and we will want to hear from them."

There are just over 5,000 agricultural employers registered with WorkSafeBC, employing tens of thousands of workers.

MacDiarmid was especially supportive of the recommendation that every B.C. employer must provide yearly reports on their compliance with safety regulations.

The recommendation was suggested at the inquest by both WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Federation of Labour, after the inquest was told the mushroom farm management had neglected all occupational safety standards.

Watchdog groups have often complained that recommendations from coroner's inquests haven't been implemented. B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said that must not happen this time.

"If the (workers' compensation board) does not move immediately to do this, then this won't save a life at all. There will be a nice piece of paper, and a waste of time by all of us."

The jury also called on the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association (FARSHA) to establish a confined space centre of excellence.

The three workers were killed inside a pump shed when hydrogen sulfide was released as they used a screwdriver to pick out straw and manure from a clogged pipe.

That leak followed another confined-space accident in 2006 when four people died from oxygen deprivation in a shed at the Sullivan Mine near Kimberley, B.C.

The confined space centre would establish best practices for workplaces to follow in dealing with the risks posed by confined spaces.

"I actually made that recommendation at the inquest," said Bruce Johnson, the executive director of FARSHA. "The centre would train people how to do hazard assessments...people would be taught how to do air testing and set up proper ventilation."

One of the problems raised during the inquest was the inability of the Vietnamese workers and management to understand English.

MacDiarmid says WorkSafeBC has been doing extensive work to translate its safety resources and regulations into other languages. Its inspectors currently have access to translation services for over 170 languages.

WorkSafeBC officials disagreed with the jury's call for more random, surprise safety inspections on farms. All of WorkSafeBC's inspections are already unscheduled and unannounced, they said. The inspectors even used unmarked vehicles for their visits.

MacDiarmid pointed out that serious accidents on agriculture worksites are down by 40 per cent in the past decade, but WorkSafeBC will aim to keep increasing its inspections and accident prevention work.

Also on the list of recommendations are that B.C. Ambulance crews carry atmosphere test meters to monitor possible lack of oxygen in a confined space and for WorkSafeBC to increase the number of safety officers.

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