OHS Canada Magazine

AIM needs hazardous materials inspection program: jury


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June 6, 2024
By The Canadian Press

Health & Safety

A coroner’s jury has recommended that American Iron & Metal adopt a hazard inspection program in the wake of a contractor’s 2022 death.

After a three-day inquest at the Saint John Law Courts, the jury ruled that Darrell Richards’ death after a fatal injury at AIM’s Saint John scrapyard June 30, 2022, was an accident, and said the company needs to address its approach to safety, communication, purchasing and inspection.

In the recommendations read in court Wednesday, the jury said that AIM had made a “reasonable attempt” to improve safety awareness, but that AIM’s communications needed to start at headquarters and be distributed through all of its sites.

It also said AIM should request a list of hazards from suppliers and implement a hazardous materials inspection program that involved quarantining and labelling hazardous materials until a safe work procedure is approved.

The latter recommendation echoes a plan proposed by health and safety specialist Stephanie Spinney, who told the inquest Tuesday that her suggestion had been rejected.

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“I’m not surprised with what they found, I am surprised that they felt AIM was … changing safety measures when it was clearly identified that they had not done that in some instances,” Richards’ daughter-in-law Kelsey Bailey told reporters. “Our hope is that there is real change going forward and this never happens to another family.”

The inquest heard that Richards, a 60-year-old contractor, had been fatally injured while attempting to dismantle a calender roll after AIM received a shipment of the 54,000-pound cylinders of steel and pressurized cotton denim from its Oakland, Maine, scrapyard.

The rolls had been sold by a mill in Maine to a scrap dealer who agreed to a process for dismantling them involving a shear attached to an excavator, according to emails from April 2022 shown in court by WorkSafeNB investigations director Michel Cyr.

That was based on input from Verne “Joe” Reynolds, an AIM employee in Maine who told Cyr that the rolls were “hit and miss” and could decompress during the dismantling process. The mill’s representative, David Falk, testified he hadn’t known that the dealer would be selling it to AIM.

But because the Maine yard was overcrowded, the rolls ended up by rail in Saint John, where production supervisors Wesley Pratt and Adam Wallace testified they had not been warned about any related hazards. Wallace said he hadn’t seen one before, and Richards, who said he’d seen the rolls when working at a mill, suggested trying removing the material with a circular saw.

Video showing AIM’s yard shows Richards alone, working on top of the roll, when the denim shot upward and into the sky. Richards was found bleeding from wounds in his groin and taken to hospital, where community coroner Fred Fearon said he died at 2:05 a.m. on July 1, 2022, of hypovolemic shock, or organ failure from blood loss.

Deputy chief coroner Michael Johnston called the theme of the inquest “communication, particularly hazard communication,” saying there was a breakdown in communications from the “place these things came from” to the workers actually doing the work.

Cyr said Wednesday that the agency put a stop-work order on the rolls until there were written procedures for handling them. Cyr said AIM came up with an approved plan to dismantle the rolls, but a massive fire at AIM’s site Sept. 14 led to a suspension of its approval to operate.

He said they hadn’t been able to confirm whether Richards had experience with the rolls from past jobs, saying the rolls he worked with were “probably not” cotton, which has the risk of expanding. Cyr said AIM Saint John had initially assessed that the roll covers were cardboard, and that tests of some of the material were 90 per cent consistent with cardboard.

While Reynolds told Cyr that he had told three AIM Saint John employees of the hazards associated with the rolls, Cyr said all three denied that. One told Cyr that he called an hour after the incident warning they were dangerous, and Wallace testified that he also spoke to Reynolds a week later, telling him “I wish you would have told us this in advance.”

Richards’ death provoked a public outcry, including calls to close the scrapyard. It was the second workplace death there in less than a year, with an inquest this past October into the death of Bruce Lagace, 48, a truck driver who died of injuries sustained while a crane was unloading his truck Nov. 24, 2021.

At the October inquest, AIM’s vice-president for Atlantic Canada, Micheal Cormier, said it was “constantly improving” on safety, including a mandatory contractor orientation and an increase in the number of safety advisors on site. Wallace testified Tuesday there was now an always-on-site advisor who could stop work and research an unfamiliar item.

Stephanie Spinney, a health and safety specialist at AIM, testified Tuesday that she was working as an advisor at the time floating between AIM’s operations in Atlantic Canada, performing coaching, training, orientations and “toolbox talks,” which were topical presentations about the day’s work.

Spinney testified that based on WorkSafe’s post-incident analysis into Richards’ death, she developed a task-oriented hazard identification program, including the hazards of a job and possible corrective actions.

“It was too robust. They didn’t want to do it,” Spinney said, saying if an employee spots a hazardous item they are expected to tell their supervisor but there’s “nothing formal written.”

She said she implemented a hazard assessment program for individuals that involve writing hazards and mitigations on a card that’s signed off by a supervisor. She said the corporate office has been doing more to develop safety programs, but it’s in the “infancy stages still.”

Cormier testified Tuesday that they no longer accept calender rolls, and that they have an inspection process for things they do not want to receive, such as propane tanks. He said a draft process is in the works that involves risk analysis for hazardous items at the purchasing stage, but currently, hazard identification is done by inspectors.

He said he was on vacation at the time of the accident, said that to his knowledge, when the rolls were shipped there was “no communication they were hazardous.”

In February, AIM pleaded guilty to an Occupational Health and Safety Act charge of failing to take precautions as an owner by communicating the hazards. They were ordered to pay $100,000 on that charge to a bursary fund in Richards’ name at NBCC.

Cyr said if he had found evidence of criminality, he would have alerted the police regarding a criminal charge. Johnston said that a question about why no criminal charges were brought was outside the scope of the inquest.

Bailey told reporters that she has had discussions and that she understands the reasons why it made more sense to bring OSHA charges, including jurisdictional issues. She said potential legal action was “definitely something we are speaking to our lawyers about.”

Safety is important. We are so glad there is the fund that is going to be there for Darrell in his name,” she said. “That doesn’t change the fact that his wife is without her husband, who was her sole provider, for the rest of her life.”

Richards’ wife, Bessie Collins, told reporters that AIM should take responsibility for his family’s livelihood, saying she has health issues and now is living off half of his pension.

“We were kicked to the side (when) he was killed. There was no other way to look at it, not for me,” she said.

During the inquest, Richards was described by Wallace as a “leader” who helped teach others about safety and “helped write the book” on safe work practices.

Bessie Collins said it was good to hear that, and that he was a “funny, good person, he was a social butterfly, everybody loved him.”

She said “I just don’t understand the whole mess,” why information wasn’t given to Richards and why he was working alone.

“To me, I don’t know why Darrell ever touched that roll,” she said. “They should have told him, you’ve got a choice, go in there, blow yourself up, or don’t do it.”

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