A family's heartache and the frustrating push to talk more about workplace deaths
Ryan Durling's 2018 death among 89 acute workplace fatalities in Atlantic Canada in 5 years
When Pam Durling walks into her kitchen, she pictures her youngest son waiting for her, leaning against the island, poised to share a story.
Instead of laughing together, she replays their conversations and the final morning he walked out the door.
Ryan Durling was 21 when he was crushed in a garbage truck while working in Port Williams, N.S. He'd entered the back of the vehicle to relieve himself, as workers often urinated there while travelling through residential neighbourhoods collecting waste.
"I believe it was 100 per cent preventable," his mother said. "Why wouldn't you be afforded a bathroom break? ... Why were there not safety devices put on those trucks, you know, so that things wouldn't happen?"
EFR Environmental has pleaded guilty to two charges under Nova Scotia's Occupational Health and Safety Act for failing to ensure an access door on the truck had an interlock system that would have prevented the door from opening when the compactor was running and, in the event that someone did open the door, would have disconnected the power.
Durling's death was one of 44 acute workplace fatalities in Nova Scotia in five years. During the same period — 2016 to the end of 2020 — 45 people died in the rest of Atlantic Canada due to injuries suffered while they were working.
"Workplaces are supposed to have their occupational health and safety teams, their meetings and whatnot. I often wonder, how is this still happening to people?" Pam Durling said in a recent interview.
"We walk around, I guess, with our blinders on and think that none of that is taking place."
In many cases, little information is available to the public about the conditions that led to fatal injuries or the steps taken in response in Nova Scotia.
Records obtained by CBC through freedom of information show investigators continue to examine the circumstances that led to 14 people dying on the job in 2020, a year marred by 18 acute workplace fatalities, the highest total number in the past decade.
"Anytime there is a fatality in the system, the system has failed," said Stuart MacLean, CEO of the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia. "To have this many in one year is really concerning."
The incidents ranged from a contractor who drowned at a Nova Scotia Power dam site in Sheet Harbour, to a man who died after an incident at a brick facility in Lantz, a self-employed truck driver who became trapped between his trailer and truck and a man who died after sustaining injuries at The Brick.
Among those who died while working were RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson and Kristen Beaton, a Victorian Order of Nurses community health worker. They were both gunned down by the mass shooter who killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia in April 2020.
Two Nova Scotians died in car crashes during their workday. In both cases, the Department of Labour concluded that there were no work-related factors involved.
But there are other fatalities that the media never covered and the province has released little information beyond the date, location and occupation of the deceased worker. They include a self-employed electrician, a worker transporting seafood and two labourers.
So far, none of the 2020 deaths have prompted charges. Provincial Investigators have two years to look into the circumstances of each fatality and decide whether there has been a violation of the criminal code or the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Fishing remains a challenge
The provincial Department of Labour declined CBC's request for an interview.
It is focusing on improving safety in the fishing and construction industries and working with groups like the Fisheries Sector Council and Safe Fishing Association, according to a statement. It said the department also has plans to work on heights, blasting and commercial diving safety in 2021.
The largest workplace event in 2020 in Atlantic Canada was the loss of the six men who were on board the scallop vessel the Chief William Saulis.
The vessel's sinking in the Bay of Fundy near Delaps Cove, N.S., was a grim reminder that the fishing industry continues to be "more prone to fatalities than any other sector," said MacLean.
Information not always available
A CBC investigation in 2019 found that, unlike some parts of Canada, the Nova Scotia government does not routinely share information about workplace fatalities.
The Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia does release annual statistics that include the number of deaths stemming from chronic health issues and occupation disease, such as cancers and respiratory disease that people were exposed to in their workplaces.
But New Brunswick, for example, has a searchable database that includes the job and industry involved as well as a description of the incident.
Summaries of accident reports were first published in 2004 in a newsletter, and the hope is that "learning how an accident happened may prevent a similar one from recurring," Laragh Dooley, WorkSafe NB's executive director of corporate communications, said in an emailed statement.
"We would like to think this does have an impact, but cannot know this for sure," she said.
In the rest of the region, Newfoundland and Labrador's Occupational Health and Safety division said it provides information about workplace incidents after an investigation has finished, but inquiries into 2020 fatalities are ongoing.
The Worker's Compensation Board of PEI does not release information about the circumstances of fatalities, citing the need to protect the privacy of workers and their families.
Not releasing basic information "is a real lost opportunity," said Mark Fleming, a Saint Mary's University professor who researches industrial occupational health and safety management.
"It's very possible that you could be working in that industry where someone died, doing an activity that you do every day and you don't know about it, and therefore you're likely to repeat that mistake," he said. "Why would one keep it secret?"
Fleming also questions why Nova Scotia's Department of Labour did not not recommend any changes after investigating the circumstances of five of the recent fatalities.
"If you can have a fatality and there all the rules were complied with, then that might question the quality of the rule," Fleming said.
Sean Tucker puts together a report every year on injury and workplace fatalities rates across Canada by pulling together data gathered from workers' compensation boards.
The University of Regina professor started the project after realizing there was no analysis related to how often these worst-case scenarios happen.
"In Canada, we don't do a good job with timely public disclosure of our work fatality data and … in the U.S., Australia, other jurisdictions, it's much more timely and it's standardized. And here we're dealing with normally about a year-and-a-half lag until all of the data is available. And that's really unfortunate," he said.
The data Tucker uses only encompasses fatalities where someone filed a claim with a workers' compensation board, meaning fatalities and injuries that aren't covered wouldn't be reflected.
Even still, in 2019 there were 362 acute fatalities and 665 deaths from occupational disease, the equivalent of nearly three people dying a day in Canada due issues they encountered at work.
In Margaretsville, N.S., not far from the Bay of Fundy shoreline where search crews combed for any signs of the crew of the Chief William Saulis last December, Pam Durling worries that people don't talk about workplace safety enough.
An educator herself, Durling would like to see more curriculum about workers' rights and safety incorporated into schools, so that all young people entering the workforce understanding things can go terribly wrong in the blink of an eye.
"It would just be nice, I think, for them to have some knowledge and be able to recognize what do you do if you see something that's not right … how do you tell your employer, 'No, that's not safe? I'm not doing that.'"
EFR was scheduled to be sentenced last week, on the National Day of Mourning that honours people injured and killed on the job. Due to COVID, the case was adjourned until at least May 26, which will allow Pam and Allan Durling to read their victim impact statements in person.
The conviction hasn't lessened the pain for Ryan's parents when they step into his old room, spotting his firefighting helmet or the taekwondo belts he spent years working toward. The family doesn't celebrate holidays the same way, as being together sometimes reminds them of his absence, Pam Durling said.
Instead of milestones like his first full-time job or home, the past three years have been dotted with court dates, updates on the investigation and, for a while, anticipation of a trial.
Though the investigator tasked with looking into the circumstances of Durling's death warned his parents the process was long, his mother said it's been a difficult wait for answers and clarity.
It was two years before they finally learned exactly what investigators believe happened to Ryan, a wait she called "unacceptable."
"It's been a long, grueling process, that's for sure," she said. "I don't think that we're going to get 100 per cent closure on it because we're I don't think we'll ever have the answer to how or why. How could this ever happen?"
As a result of Ryan Durling's death, the Nova Scotia Department of Labour said it has been inspecting waste disposal trucks.
So far, it has looked at more than 20 vehicles across the province and "in all cases proper guarding was in place." The department's statement said staff continue to work with employees to ensure the right paperwork is also in place.
Durling's parents hope that their son's death will prompt some change, and his mother hopes other families who suffer a workplace loss are supported as they press for answers.
"The more we talk about things and be aware of things and issues and things that arise and that, you know, will bring in awareness and maybe preventative measures," Pam Durling said.
"We send our young people in the workforce to room, our husbands and wives to the workforce, and when we say 'see you later' to them in the morning ... you just don't think that you might not see them at the end of the day."