Appeals court clears Viterra in 2011 death of grain-terminal worker

Saskatchewan’s highest court has dismissed an appeal against a Regina-based agribusiness accused of negligence in the death of a worker in 2011.

Company had been accused of not properly training man engulfed by grain in pit

Regina-based Viterra has been cleared of charges under the Canada Labour Code in relation to the death of a grain terminal worker in 2011. (CBC)

Saskatchewan's highest court has dismissed an appeal against a Regina-based agribusiness accused of negligence in the death of a worker in 2011.

Federal Crown prosecutors had charged Viterra — which has since been purchased by Glencore  — with six violations of the Canada Labour Code.

On Sept. 8, 2011, a man working at a Viterra-owned grain terminal in Rosetown, Sask., was fatally smothered by grain inside a receiving pit beneath the terminal floor.

A decision nixing the appeal, issued last week by Justice Peter Whitmore, and concurred with by justices Maurice Herauf and Gary Lane, fleshes out what happened that day.

Asked twice to check on blockages

The accident happened inside a large drive-in bay area with two grain receiving pits stretching approximately six metres beneath the terminal floor, with trucks dumping grain into the pits through floor grates.

The grain would then be funneled from the bottom of the pit to bucket elevators located even further underground.

When an assistant manager suspected a blockage in one of the pits, he asked the man who was killed — whose name has not been released — to look into the pit to see if there was anything impeding the flow of grain. The man did so, peering into the pit through the floor grate with a flashlight.

When another blockage was suspected later that morning, the assistant manager again asked the man — who had started working at the terminal that previous May — to look into the pit.  

Man had entered pit 

The manager then walked to the next truck waiting to deliver its load and told the driver not to enter the bay area while the pit was being looked into.

About one minute later, a worker at the terminal realized the man had entered the pit through a hatch located off to the side of the bay area.

"Grain had accumulated in the pit and when the deceased stepped onto the grain he was immediately engulfed and suffocated," Whitmore wrote.

Training 'replete' with warnings

Crown prosecutors had accused Viterra of:

  • Not telling the man how to unplug a blockage in the pit.
  • Failing to make sure the man had the right health and safety training for dealing with a blockage.
  • Not ensuring the man was aware of the hazard of being engulfed by grain.

But the original trial judge discounted those arguments, pointing to the fact that the assistant manager had not told the man to go inside the pit — merely to look into it — and that training successfully completed by the man had been "replete" with warnings about the danger of entering confined spaces like a pit.

Citing the trial judge's findings — and the fact that the normal procedure for unplugging a blockage was not to enter the pit but to poke through the floor grates with a long metal rod — the three-judge appeal court panel upheld the original acquittal of Viterra.