Work refusal leads to temporary layoffs at Sterling Fuels
Employees claim unsafe conditions on dock
(Canadian OH&S News) — Disputes over safety continue to disrupt operations at the Windsor, Ont. location of Sterling Fuels Limited, as a recent refusal to work has caused the company to suspend work temporarily for most of the ship-offloading and -loading staff.
The initial incident occurred on April 5, when one employee refused to work on the dock because of work conditions perceived to be unsafe, according to Mike D’Agnolo, president of Unifor Local 444, the union that represents the workers.
“The company went up to all the other workers, and the other workers didn’t feel comfortable doing the work on the dock until they had confirmation that the work was safe,” explained D’Agnolo, who specified the reasons for the work refusals as “improper eyewash stations, improper showers and not a legitimate rescue plan in place if someone was to fall in the water.”
Following the refusals, Sterling contacted the Ontario Ministry of Labour, which sent a health and safety officer to the workplace to investigate the worksite shortly before Easter weekend. As of April 24, the company has not yet received the investigation results. In the meantime, Sterling has cancelled operations on the dock for the time being.
“Two of our workers are still currently working, loading and offloading trucks and providing the maintenance,” said D’Agnolo.
Joel Gardner, Sterling’s corporate health, safety and environmental manager, acknowledged that the layoffs had been connected to the work refusals.
“The other employees were asked if they would like to continue to refuel on the dock. They all refused, for various reasons,” said Gardner. “And as a result, there was just no work. So everybody was told, ‘We’ll call you if we have trucks that we can load.’”
Gardner added that the company is still unsure as to why the employees have refused to work on the dock. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said. “It’s a general ‘I feel unsafe.’”
For D’Agnolo, much of the problem stemmed from what he saw as an insufficient rescue plan for workers who fall into the Detroit River.
“We would like to see a rescue boat,” he said. “Some of the ships that we load and offload, their rescue boats are hanging over our dock. So they’re not deployable.” He speculated that if a worker fell into the river, another would dive into the water to rescue the first worker, thereby endangering both workers. “No one’s just going to watch a friend go down.”
What the employer expects, D’Agnolo continued, is that the employees will call an outside fire department to come to the rescue. “That could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes.”
But Gardner claimed that Sterling had been investing in improved safety over the last two years, including recently buying a new work boat for rescue purposes.
“The season’s just starting, so we’re just installing the boat lift,” said Gardner. “But our main focus is to prevent people from actually falling into the water. So we’ve invested heavily in that, but we do have the work boat just in case someone falls in.”
He added that the company had invested about $250,000 in dock upgrades — “in particular, platforms being expanded and reinforced, we have fall protection, we’ve invested heavily in emergency response, lifesaving rings, boat hooks, throw bags.”
D’Agnolo conceded that Sterling had made efforts to improve safety at the Windsor facility. “They’re working right now to fix the facility to be the best facility around,” he said. “Have they fallen short in certain areas? Absolutely.
“At the end of the day, we have to make health and safety our priority for our members. They work next to the water. They work with fuel. There has to be a fire-contingency plan. There has to be rescue plans. This isn’t negotiable. This is Safety 101, in our eyes.”
“We’re trying to solve that problem as we speak,” Gardner said about the safety concerns.
“We’re not sure why it keeps coming up.”