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Criminal charges against Suncor managers warranted after worker's death, AFL says

‘Consider laying criminal charges against individual managers,’ Alberta Federation of Labour president says

Suncor office in Fort McMurray

Suncor Energy pleaded guilty in April to one charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of worker Jerry Cooper. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

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Alberta's association of trade unions is questioning whether Suncor managers should face criminal charges, after court documents show the company ignored safety problems at a tailings pond months before a worker fell in and drowned in January 2014.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the province should consider laying criminal charges under the Westray Act, which came into force after the Nova Scotia Westray mining disaster killed 26 coal miners in 1992.

An amendment to Canada's Criminal Code, the Westray Act was enacted by the federal government in 2004 to hold corporations and managers criminally liable for workers' injuries.

"Somehow, these incidents just keep happening over and over again where employers and managers are not taking the proper steps to keep their workers safe," McGowan said. "I think it's appropriate to consider laying criminal charges against individual managers."

Court documents first obtained by CBC News show seven months before tailings pond operator Jerry Cooper drowned in the icy tailings pond at a Suncor oilsands site near Fort McMurray, the company had recorded a series of "near misses" and "incident reports" stemming from softened ground caused by pipeline leaks in the same tailings pond area.

'Employers and managers are not taking the proper steps to keep their workers safe.' -  Gil McGowan, president, Alberta Federation of Labour

"The defendant should have been aware of the potential danger of drowning to a line patrol operator, in winter conditions and during the hours of darkness, arising from a leak in a tailings pipeline," says the agreed statement of facts from a provincial court case in April.

Suncor pleaded guilty and was fined $300,000 for failing to ensure Cooper's health and safety.

Criminal convictions difficult

However, obtaining criminal convictions in workplace safety accidents is difficult, University of Alberta labour law researcher Eric Adams says.

One of the few successful cases was in 2015, where an Ontario judge found a project manager criminally responsible for the death of four workers, Adams said.

The workers plunged to their deaths while working on the outside of a building 30 meters up. The judge ruled the manager was negligent because he failed to ensure staff operated with the mandatory lifesaving harnesses.

Pic 1 Eric Adams

University of Alberta labour law researcher Eric Adams says securing criminal convictions in workplace safety accidents is difficult. (Submitted/ University of Alberta)

But Adams says the Suncor tragedy is different, because there's no established or mandatory safety protocol to deal with workers falling into caverns near tailings ponds as a result of leaking pipes.

"There was no clear history of individuals that had been injured or imperilled that the employer was ignoring," Adams said. "There was no clear safety protocol that existed that the employer said, 'You know what, don't worry about that.'"

In an interview with CBC News, Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal did not respond when questioned whether the company's managers should face criminal charges.

But Seetal said the company has never encountered a circumstance where a leaking tailing pipe resulted in the death of an employee, and it's now focussed on preventing similar incidents. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.

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