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Councillor to table motion on bus safety following death of Winnipeg driver

Bus operator stabbed on Feb. 14


(Canadian OH&S News) — In response to the murder of a Winnipeg Transit (WT) bus driver in the early hours of Feb. 14, a city councillor plans to bring forward a motion to have WT staff evaluate the system’s safety protocols.

Irvine Fraser was stabbed by a passenger after completing his route at the University of Manitoba campus that day, and he later died of his injuries. The Winnipeg Police Service is investigating the incident, according to an announcement from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg bus operators.

“I believe it’s the first fatality of a bus operator on duty in Canada, who was actually murdered,” said Local 1505 president John Callahan. “There have been fatalities as a result of collisions, but this is the first where an operator’s been murdered.”

Marty Morantz, the chair of the standing policy committee on infrastructure and public works for the Winnipeg city council, is tabling a motion to initiate a review of WT safety procedures on Feb. 28.

“The motion is to have the public service report back on what our current transit safety measures are in a full and comprehensive way, so that we have a baseline understanding of what it is we currently do,” Morantz told COHSN. “I really see it as sort of a first step in trying to assess where our strengths are and where we have some weaknesses in the system.”

He added that the report will be submitted to the committee by the end of May and then published on the committee’s agenda, making it accessible to everyone.

“It is something we need to do, given what happened, which is just horrible,” said Morantz.

Callahan agreed that the review would be “a good first step” in making the system safer for workers. “Everything needs to be looked at, for sure,” he said. “It’s not just one area; it’s the whole gamut.”

Bus operators in Winnipeg have faced a wide range of violence from agitated passengers, including spitting, punching, slapping, kicking, thrown objects and even pepper spray, added Callahan. “We had one case where a bag of feces was thrown at a driver,” he said. “You name it. Anything you could think of.”

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said in an e-mailed response that all WT buses currently have digital surveillance cameras and GPS-based “Automatic Vehicle Location” technology to help deter criminal activity and convict perpetrators.

“Since the installation of surveillance cameras, we have seen an increase in the successful identification of assailants,” the spokesperson wrote. “In the event of an unruly passenger, operators are trained to call the Control Centre for assistance… Depending on the situation, the Control Centre may dispatch a supervisor or notify the Winnipeg Police Service.”

In addition, the police have been deploying both uniformed and plainclothes officers to random buses and stops. And drivers receive Transit Assault Prevention Strategy training, or TRAPS, which teaches self-defence as well as disengagement of agitated passengers.

In the past, WT has attempted pilot projects involving the installation of barriers between drivers and passengers to act as protective shields, but the measure did not prove to be popular. “If you use a barrier like a shield, you’re trapped in the corner, so to speak,” said Callahan, adding that such a measure would require a door on the other side of the bus to allow operators to escape if something happens.

“The transit drivers decided they didn’t want them,” said Morantz about the protective barriers. “I think they felt confined — I think probably most of the transit drivers actually enjoy the personal interaction, and it sort of isolates you when you have the shield.”

Morantz noted that violence against transit operators is a universal issue not limited to Winnipeg. “Every transit system in the world has these difficulties,” he said, while conceding that “it’s very unusual to have a transit driver who is murdered on the job; that’s just a horrific event.”

The goal of the proposed safety review, he explained, is to see what the city can do to reduce the likelihood of such a tragedy in the future. “Most reasonable people would agree, you can never eliminate it completely,” he said, but “there are measures we can take that can make it a little bit safer.” It would be worthwhile to see if new technology is available or if drivers have a different perspective on protective barriers now, for example.

“No transit driver should have to go to work and fear for their personal safety.”