Hamilton

Union pushes Ontario to address 'deplorable situation' at National Steel Car after 3 worker deaths

The United Steelworkers Union says it will keep contacting and pressing Ontario’s labour minister until he agrees to a meeting to discuss the “deplorable health and safety situation at National Steel Car in Hamilton.”

Labour Ministry went to Hamilton plant 221 times over 5 years, issued 78 orders over a year: spokesperson

At National Steel Car in Hamilton, three workers died over 21 months, prompting the United Steelworkers union to press Ontario's Labour Ministry for a meeting with the minister. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

The United Steelworkers Union says it will keep contacting and pressing Ontario's labour minister until he agrees to a meeting to take action on the "deplorable health and safety situation at National Steel Car in Hamilton."

Workers at the rail-car manufacturing plant are facing a "crisis" following three deaths at the plant over 21 months, Myles Sullivan, the union's Ontario and Atlantic director, says in a letter sent Wednesday to Labour, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton.

"This equates to one death every seven months and is the worst health and safety record of any workplace in Ontario," according the letter, which was shared with CBC Hamilton.

Quoc Le, a welder, died at the Kenilworth Avenue North plant June 6 after a bulkhead that weighed approximately 2,000 pounds fell, according to Hamilton police.

The other two deaths involved Collin Grayley in April 2021 and Fraser Cowan in September 2020. 

Earlier this month, a large rally to protest work conditions led to NSC closing the plant for two days, saying it was a safety measure to protect people coming and going from the plant.

Quoc Le, 51, died at National Steel Car in Hamilton on June 6 after a bulkhead weighing about 2,000 pounds fell, according to police. (Courtesy of GoFundMe)

The union wants police to investigate the company for criminal negligence. Police spokesperson Jackie Penman said Tuesday their investigation into Le's death is ongoing.

Between June 1, 2017, and June 9, 2022, the ministry says, it has been at the Hamilton facility 221 times, for both proactive inspections and responses to complaints, reportable injuries or illnesses, spokesperson Kalem McSween wrote to CBC Hamilton in an email.

He said the ministry was at the plant 75 times between June 3, 2021, and the same date in 2022, leading to the issuing of 78 orders.

"To protect the integrity of the workplace fatality investigation and the issues before the courts, the ministry is not able to provide further information," McSween wrote.

He declined to say how the number of visits to NSC compares with other manufacturing companies of similar size. The union says it has been told by inspectors that the number of incidents at the factory far surpasses others in the area. 

McSween said the ministry of labour investigates each workplace incident as an independent event.

"The intent of any investigation is to identify cause(s) and required corrective action to prevent recurrence," he wrote. "For matters which result in a conviction, workplace history may be taken into consideration by the courts when determining penalties."

Sullivan said the ministry hasn't done enough to improve safety at the plant, given the workplace deaths.

"Two employees died on the job in circumstances which were eerily similar," he wrote Wednesday. "I am once again asking you to meet so that together, we can address the significant and unrelenting health and safety catastrophe at National Steel Car."

Workplace fines to rise July 1 

Sullivan's letter is the union's second to McNaughton in recent weeks. 

In response to its first letter, on June 17, Deputy Minister of Labour Greg Meredith cited the recent hiring of 100 more workplace inspectors and new legislation he said will make fines against offending workplaces the highest in Canada. 

As of July 1, corporate officers and directors who are convicted of failing to uphold the Occupational Health and Safety Act or failing to comply with inspection orders will face a maximum fine of $1.5 million, he said. The maximum fine for other convictions under the act will rise to $500,000. According to the province's website, fines for individuals are currently capped at $100,000, and the maximum for a convicted corporation is $1.5 million.

"We are confident that these changes will help protect workers on the job and help ensure safer working environments across the province," Meredith wrote.

In his response, Sullivan said the measures will do little to help NSC workers.

"Increased fines are an inadequate deterrent, especially for companies with deep pockets and little regard for workplace health and safety," he wrote.

Each process should be examined with 'magnifying glass'

Frank Crowder, president of USW Local 7135, which represents NSC workers, said the union would use a meeting with McNaughton to press him to assign an active, full-time health and safety inspector to the plant. Crowder said the union will soon start contacting Premier Doug Ford if it doesn't get a meeting with McNaughton.

USW Local 7135 president Frank Crowder, a welder at National Steel Car, speaks at a rally outside the Hamilton plant on June 9. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

"Every single process in the plant should be looked at with a magnifying glass," said Crowder in an email to CBC Hamilton on Thursday. "National Steel Car should also pay the stiffest fines possible under the Occupational Health and Safety Act — with no extensions or special exceptions.

"We want more time for the joint health and safety committee to perform its job, which the company has refused. We also want unilateral status assigned to us, which would allow for a work stoppage on the grounds of 'dangerous work.'"

Jerome Morse, a lawyer representing NSC, said maintaining a safe workplace is up to employees as well as management.

"No issues were ever raised or considered by the joint health and safety committee in advance of these three terrible tragedies," he said in an email to CBC Hamilton. Morse didn't respond to a request to clarify whether that meant no issues whatsoever, or no issues related to how the workers died.

'We're holding it together'

The union local's executive is raising money for Le's family through a GoFundMe page, said Crowder.

Le leaves behind a 17-year-old daughter, a 14-year-old son and his wife who was his high school sweetheart, said Crowder.

He said even though he didn't know Le personally, he has been hit hard by his colleague's death. Crowder previously told CBC Hamilton that employees at the plant are increasingly "fearful" of going to work and some of their families are asking them to look for new jobs.

"We're holding it together pretty good and we're doing our best, and doing everything we can for the family," he said, noting the union has an emergency response team that reaches out to families after tragedies such as this one.

"We're doing everything we can for the members as well."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saira Peesker is a reporter with CBC Hamilton, with particular interests in climate, labour and local politics. She has previously worked with the Hamilton Spectator and CTV News, and is a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail, covering small business and personal finance. Saira can be reached at saira.peesker(at)cbc.ca or on Twitter @Peesker.

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