Machine operator Peter Thomas says that after years of working in what he feels is an unsafe environment at National Steel Car in Hamilton, “it’s hit a point where something has to change.”
Thomas said that during his time at the rail-car manufacturer, there have been several incidents where a crane has dropped the item it was picking up. He said despite reports from employees, management was slow to make safety upgrades.
Thomas was among dozens of workers rallying outside the rail-car manufacturer Thursday afternoon following the death of welder Quoc Le, 51, on Monday. It marked the third death following a workplace incident at the plant in 21 months.
As passing cars and transport trucks honked steadily, rallying workers told CBC Hamilton that projects are pushed through at a hectic pace, with employee safety appearing to take a back seat.
One worker described lasting trauma as a result of a workplace incident involving a co-worker. Several refused to share their names for fear of reprisals at work, but Thomas wasn’t afraid to speak out.
“It’s the truth,” he said. “What can they do to me for saying the truth?”
Another worker, Kevin Huggins, said while he feels it’s possible to stay safe at National Steel Car, the onus is on workers to watch their own backs.
“It’s a jungle out there,” he said.
CBC Hamilton attempted to contact National Steel Car to comment on safety concerns, but was unable to reach anyone Thursday. The company also did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment following Le’s death.
United Steelworkers Local 7135, which represents workers at the plant, is asking for Hamilton police to open a criminal negligence investigation into the workplace deaths. It also wants the Ministry of Labour to review the company’s safety procedures in collaboration with the company and the union.
‘Our members are not just angry’
In the days since Le’s death, there’s been a shift in tone among the rest of the workers at the plant, says Local 7135 president Frank Crowder.
“Our members are not just angry, but they’re fearful,” Crowder, also a welder at the plant, told CBC Hamilton in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m receiving many calls from members who are looking for other employment because they believe it’s too dangerous.
“Their families, their wives, are asking them not to go back there, to please find other jobs and work somewhere else.”
Crowder said he didn’t know Le personally, but has been told he leaves behind a spouse and at least one child.
According to the union, Le lived in Hamilton and had previously worked at National Steel Car, but had left for another job and recently returned, working just over 1,000 hours before his death.
Hamilton police said his death involved the falling of a bulkhead weighing approximately 2,000 pounds.
“Our statistics show that new employees are more prone to having accidents,” says Crowder.
He added he can’t say if that factored into Le’s death, but noted it could imply better training for new or returning employees is required.
“It was enough after one [death] in the past few years,” he said. “We’ve now had three.”
The Hamilton Police Service and the Ministry of Labour are still investigating Le’s death.
Police have made “no determination on any charges at this time,” spokesperson Jackie Penman said in an email to CBC Hamilton on Thursday.
Penman said potential outcomes of the investigation could include charges by the ministry under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, or criminal charges under police jurisdiction.
“This investigation takes time,” she said.
Company shuts down facility until next week
Before Thursday’s rally, National Steel Car announced it would shut down the facility for the rest of this week as a safety measure to protect people coming and going from the plant.
It also locked the gate on its employee parking lot, so workers at the rally parked on the street. As a result, cars lined Kenilworth Avenue from Burlington Street going north.
“We have been made aware of a planned protest this afternoon at our main entrance that will impede the safe entry and exit of our facility,” said a statement posted on the company’s Facebook page. “Our top priority remains the health and safety of our people, customers, suppliers and partners … We are planning to resume operations next week.”
Earlier this week, following Le’s death, the company cancelled shifts on Monday and Tuesday.
Crowder said he was at work Thursday morning before the shutdown. He said he and another union rep were wearing shirts that said, “Stop the killing and enforce the law,” and were asked by management to leave. The same shirts were on full display at the rally, with many there sporting the black tees with red-and-while lettering.
Crowder believes this incident should fall under the Criminal Code’s Westray Law, which allows courts to attribute criminal liability to organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others. It was created following the Westray Mine collapse in Nova Scotia in 1992, but has not been widely used.
“This law is rarely, if ever, enforced,” said Crowder. “Many police forces are not even aware this law exists.”