Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

A family's heartache and the frustrating push to talk more about workplace deaths

Ryan Durling’s death was one of 44 acute workplace fatalities in Nova Scotia in five years. During the same time frame, 45 people died in the rest of Atlantic Canada due to injuries suffered while they were working.

Ryan Durling's 2018 death among 89 acute workplace fatalities in Atlantic Canada in 5 years

N.S. family wants more education, conversation around workplace safety

CBC News Nova Scotia

12 days ago
3:22
In Atlantic Canada, people often brace for fishing tragedies or construction accidents. But we don't hear about all workplace fatalities. And after losing their 21-year-old son, one Nova Scotia family says it's time for that to change. Investigative reporter Elizabeth McMillan has more. 3:22

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?" 

Allan and Pam Durling are shown with a photo of their son Ryan, who died in May 2018 after being injured at work. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

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.

Ryan Durling, pictured here during his last year of high school, was 21 when he died while working for EFR Environmental doing solid waste pickup in Port Williams. (Submitted by Pamela Durling)

"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.

The number of fatalities resulting from traumatic injuries suffered on the job in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

"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

Kristen Beaton, a Victorian Order of Nurses continuing care assistant, and RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson were both working when they were killed by a gunman on April 19, 2020. (Facebook/Nova Scotia RCMP/Twitter)

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. 

The six men known to have been on board the Chief William Saulis. Top row, from left: Captain Charles Roberts, Aaron Cogswell, Dan Forbes. Bottom row, from left: Eugene Francis, Michael Drake and Leonard Gabriel. (Facebook/CBC)

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. 

Two 2019 fatalities, a Truro firefighter who died after a training incident and a worker at the Halifax Shipyard who fell after being struck by a piece of equipment, are now before the court. 

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. 

Pictured here, the Chief William Saulis scallop fishing vessel in November 2020. The Nova Scotia government says it continues to work with fishing safety organizations to try to make the industry safer. (Katherine Bickford)

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. 

The number of acute fatalities in New Brunswick in recent years. (CBC)

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. 

The number of acute workplace fatalities, which does not include the number of people who died as a result of occupational disease. (CBC)

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?"

Mark Fleming is a Saint Mary’s University professor who researches industrial occupational health and safety management. (CBC)

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 Workers Compensation Board of P.E.I. says numbers for 2020 won't be released until June. (CBC)

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.  

Pam Durling says her son Ryan loved spending time with his siblings, excelled at taekwondo and was a volunteer firefighter with a 'deep sense of responsibility.' (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

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. 

EFR Environmental's head office is in Middleton, N.S. The company is scheduled to be sentenced on May 26 to two charges under Nova Scotia’s Occupational Health and Safety Act that followed the two-year investigation into Ryan Durling's death. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

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?" 

Ryan Durling loved taekwondo. After his death, he instructor gave his parents an honorary black belt. (Facebook)

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."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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