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Widow seeking inquiry into alleged toxic exposures at Manitoba smelter in 2008

Vale, government say employee's death not work-related


(Canadian OH&S News) — Almost nine years after her husband died of a supposed heart attack during a work stint at a Vale Canada smelter in Thompson, Man., Lila Fifi still has questions — and is unsatisfied with the answers she has received.

At about 5 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2008, David Fifi phoned her unexpectedly from where he was staying with their son. His voice was hoarse, his breath coming out in short gasps. “He could hardly even speak,” recalled Lila Fifi. An ambulance took him to a local hospital, but he passed away shortly after 8 a.m. that day.

David, 52, was a boilermaker who was part of a team hired earlier that year to install a new electrostatic precipitator (ESP) at the Thompson smelter. Although his death was officially deemed due to natural causes, Lila Fifi is not convinced it was that simple: she believes he was exposed to high levels of toxic gas through leaks and holes in the flue line at the facility — and that he was not the only one. She is still trying to get the federal government and other authorities to initiate some kind of public inquiry or investigation into what really happened.

“He was blasted for three times a day for six days in a row, and there’s not one citation,” said Fifi. “The day that David passed away, they shut that job down for two days, and they put it up and running, and they haven’t done anything.” Workplace Safety and Health (WSH), the provincial government oh&s authority, did investigate the fatality, but ceased the investigation when the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (CME) ruled that David’s death was not work-related. Fifi was denied survivor’s benefits from the worker’s compensation board.

Cory McPhee, Vale Canada’s vice president of corporate affairs, told COHSN that the company had provided proper respiratory protection and gas monitors for the group hired to replace the ESP in 2008.

“They had procedures in place for dealing with gas, all of those procedures were followed, there were other workers there, there were no other exposures. Everything had been fairly normal,” said McPhee, stating that nothing unusual had happened in the days leading up to David Fifi’s death.

“There’s nothing to connect this to any workplace exposure,” he added. “That does nothing to take away from the tragedy of him losing his life, but it certainly was not workplace-related.”

An e-mailed response from WSH stated that its 2008 investigation had “concurred with the determination” by the CME that David Fifi had “died as a result of natural causes.”

But witness reports from a few of David’s work colleagues on the day after his death suggest another scenario. According to a series of statements obtained by COHSN, four co-workers told WSH investigator Dennis Fontaine that David and others had been ill for about a week before the tragedy.

“We got high gas at least three times a day for at least six days,” foreman Sean Mcelmoyle said on Nov. 7, 2008. “All members of the crew, including myself, are ill right now.”

Mcelmoyle passed away after David did, according to Lila Fifi, who said that a friend of hers had tried to convince Mcelmoyle to quit at the Thompson smelter shortly after David’s death. “His wife doesn’t know why he died,” said Fifi.

Another boilermaker, Doug Bell, told Fontaine that David had been “coughing a bit” on the day before his death. In addition, the workers did not have a sufficient number of gas monitors on the job, he claimed.

“We were constantly getting gassed from at least four different stacks,” said Bell. “This cuts right through your respirators, so no matter how you try to protect yourself, you can’t.” The gas was so thick that Bell could taste and smell it through his respirator, he described, “and it was making my eyes water.”

Safety rep Dean Bull questioned whether the workers had been using the right kinds of gas monitors in his statement. Meanwhile, fellow boilermaker James Keck stated that he had gone to the hospital on the morning of Nov. 3, 2008 because he had been “vomiting after work, had a problem standing up, felt hot and [felt] a tingling in my hands.”

After her husband’s passing, Lila Fifi began to attend safety meetings at Vale and discuss issues with other employees. “And there were lots of concerns there,” she said. “You know how many things we saw in there that there were deficiencies, and nothing was done about it.”

She has accused Vale and the Manitoba government of suppressing information about toxic exposures at the Thompson smelter. “They must be doing some kind of elbow rubbing,” she said.

“Why isn’t anything being done? The people that know. Nobody’s doing anything. I can’t believe it,” said Fifi. “Today, Vale’s operating as they were before. Nothing’s being done.

“Why isn’t there somebody turning around and being a whistleblower?”

Located about 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Vale’s nickel operations in Thompson currently employ around 1,500 people at a mill, smelter and refinery, according to information from the company website.