Machine operator Peter Thomas says that after years of working in what he considers an unsafe environment at National Steel Car in Hamilton “it’s reached a point where something needs to change”.
Thomas said that during his tenure with the rolling stock manufacturer, there were several incidents where a crane dropped the item he was picking up. He said management has been slow to make safety improvements, despite reports from employees.
Thomas was among dozens of workers who gathered outside the rail car manufacturer on Thursday afternoon after the death of welder Quoc Le, 51, on Monday. It was the third fatality from an industrial accident at the plant in 21 months.
As passing cars and vans honked their horns incessantly, rally workers told CBC Hamilton that projects are moving forward at a frantic pace, with employee safety seemingly taking a backseat.
A worker described ongoing trauma as a result of a workplace incident involving a co-worker. Some refused to give their names for fear of reprisals at work, but Thomas wasn’t afraid to speak out.
“It’s the truth,” he said. “What can you do to me for telling the truth?”
Another worker, Kevin Huggins, said that while he believes it is possible to stay safe at National Steel Car, the responsibility lies with workers to look after 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 Tuesday to a request for comment following Le’s death.
United Steelworkers Local 7135, which represents workers at the plant, is asking Hamilton Police to open a criminal investigation into the workplace deaths. In addition, the Department of Labor is to review the company’s safety procedures in cooperation with the company and the union.
“Our members aren’t just angry”
In the days since Le’s death, the tone has changed among other workers at the plant, says Frank Crowder, president of Local 7135.
“Our members are not only angry, they’re scared,” Crowder, also a welder at the plant, said in a phone interview with CBC Hamilton on Thursday. “I get a lot of calls from members looking for alternative employment because they think it’s too dangerous.
“Their families, their wives are asking them not to go back there, please look for other jobs and work somewhere else.”
Crowder said he doesn’t know Le personally, but was told he was survived by a spouse and at least one child.
According to the union, Le lived in Hamilton and had previously worked at National Steel Car but left for another job and recently returned, where he worked just over 1,000 hours before his death.
Hamilton Police said his death was caused by a bulkhead falling down weighing about 2,000 pounds.
“Our statistics show that new employees are more prone to accidents,” says Crowder.
He added he couldn’t say if this contributed to Le’s death, but noted it could mean better training was needed for new or returning employees.
“After one, it was enough [death] in the last few years,” he said. “We had three now.”
The Hamilton Police Service and Department of Labor are still investigating Le’s death.
Police spokesman Jackie Penman said Thursday in an email to CBC Hamilton that “there are no determinations regarding any charges at this time.”
Penman said possible findings from the investigation could include indictments by the department under the Occupational Health and Safety Act or criminal indictments under police jurisdiction.
“This investigation will take time,” she said.
The company is closing the facility until next week
Ahead of Thursday’s rally, National Steel Car announced it would close the facility for the remainder of this week as a safety measure to protect people entering and exiting the facility.
It also locked the gate in its staff parking lot, so workers at the rally parked on the street. As a result, cars lined Kenilworth Avenue from northbound Burlington Street.
“We were made aware this afternoon of a planned protest at our main entrance that will impede safe entry and exit from our facility,” said a statement posted to the company’s Facebook page. “Our top priority remains the health and safety of our employees, customers, suppliers and partners… We plan to resume operations next week.”
Earlier this week, following Le’s death, the company canceled Monday and Tuesday shifts.
Crowder said he was at work Thursday morning before the shutdown. He said he and another union representative were wearing shirts that read “stop the killing and enforce the law” and had been asked by management to leave. The same shirts were on full display at the rally, many wearing the black shirts with the red and white lettering.
Crowder believes this incident should fall under the Criminal Code’s Westray Act, which allows courts to hold organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others criminally responsible. It was created after the 1992 collapse of the Westray mine in Nova Scotia, but has not been widely adopted.
“This law is rarely, if ever, enforced,” Crowder said. “Many police forces don’t even know this law exists.”