Sunday, May 26, 2024

Ceremony honours workers killed on the job

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Nearly 1,000 Canadians were killed on the job in 2022, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, according to the Canadian Labour Congress.

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Jennifer Chenier was at home last May when her son, Nick, called from a job site just a couple of blocks away from the family’s Manotick home. Nick, 20, was an employee with Best Green Hedges Inc., and, unusually, he called asking if his mom could bring him a lunch.

“When I dropped it off he ran out and I said, ‘What’s going on?’  He said. ‘Oh, you don’t want to know. This job is disaster,’ ” she recalled. “He took the sandwich and took off.

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“That’s the last time I saw him.”

Later that afternoon, Jennifer was at an appointment in Barrhaven casually scrolling through social media when she saw there was a power outage in Manotick. In the comments she read a hedge trimmer had been badly injured.

“Please don’t let it be Nick,” she thought.

No one answered her calls. When the news came after what seemed like an endless wait, it was the worst news possible.

Nick had been electrocuted when the aluminum pole trimmer he’d been given for the job contacted a 16,000 volt hydro line in the hedges. He died instantly of cardiac arrest.

“I can’t bring myself to call it an accident,” she said Sunday as she spoke at a ceremony in Vincent Massey Park for Canada’s National Day of Mourning for workers injured or killed on the job.

Nick Chenier
Nick Chenier was electrocuted when the aluminum pole trimmer he’d been given for a job contacted a 16,000 volt hydro line in the hedges. Photo by Supplied /ott

“I rarely feel joy or happiness. Every day has been a horrible struggle to get through the day knowing I will never see him get married, have children, be the best man at his brother’s wedding. … It makes my heart ache.”

Nearly 1,000 Canadians were killed on the job in 2022, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, according to the Canadian Labour Congress. Another 300,000 lost time due to workplace injuries.

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In Nick Chenier’s case, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration Training and Skills Development brought charges against Best Green Hedges director Sheldon Bestgreen and supervisor Steven Deans. On Thursday, Bestgreen pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the company took all reasonable steps to comply with the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act at the Manotick job site. The company was fined $45,000 — a penalty Jennifer Chenier called a slap in the face.

“Knowing this could have been prevented, knowing that if the people responsible for keeping him safe listened and did their jobs, lives with me every day,” she said.

The Ministry of Labour fine was handed out the same day that Ottawa police announced they’d charged Nick’s supervisor, Steven Deans, 38, with one count of criminal negligence causing death.

It is the first time in Ottawa that criminal charges have been laid against an employer for an employee’s death, said Sean McKenney, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council, host of Sunday’s ceremony.

“I’m disappointed by the penalty that the employer was given — a $45,000 fine and a victim’s surcharge doesn’t go far enough — but on the other hand, we’re very pleased about the criminal negligence causing death charge. It doesn’t bring Nick back, but the hope is that it sends a message to employers that it’s something they need to respect — the health and safety of their workers.”

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Sunday’s ceremony was held just metres away from the Heron Road Bridge, site of a catastrophic collapse in 1966 that killed nine workers. It was another workplace disaster — the 1992 explosion and fire at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia that killed 26 workers — that led to 2004 legislation that allowed for criminal charges to be laid for workplace deaths.

Police have been slow to adapt to the law, however, which is another reason McKenney was pleased to see Ottawa police act on Nick Chenier’s death.

“The Crown and police services have very little experience applying the Criminal Code for a workplace injury or death,” McKenney said. “They’ve always said, ‘This is what the Ministry of Labour does.’ Little by little, we’re starting to see that change.”

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