Why many N.S. businesses don't face tough safety enforcement
Liam Crane, who was almost crushed by a forklift, believes the Department of Labour is too soft on employers
Turning a door knob gives Liam Crane pain for days. The constant throbbing he gets from chopping vegetables can be a hassle in his work as a chef, but he pushes through.
He knows it could have been much worse.
"When I saw the forklift was coming at me, I didn't think I would have time to dash to either side, so basically I just yelled and threw my arm up," said Crane.
"It stopped maybe a couple inches from my chest."
Eight years ago, at the age of 19, he was working at Goodfellow Inc, a lumber treatment facility in Elmsdale, N.S., when he looked up from placing stickers on lumber to see a forklift driving right at him. It crashed into him, breaking two bones in his right arm and trapping him in the small pocket between the heavy forklift and the lumber stack. He crawled out, stunned.
His boss never called an ambulance that Friday afternoon in May 2013. His employer also did not report the accident to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, according to documents.
Instead, the forklift operator drove him home to get his health card, then to a nearby medical clinic, where Crane said the doctor gave him pain pills, put his arm in a splint and advised that he go directly to the hospital.
Crane said they returned to the worksite to switch vehicles. He said the scene of the accident — the forklift and stacks of lumber — had been moved in the time he was gone.
The forklift driver then drove Crane to the Halifax Infirmary, where he was admitted for emergency surgery.
Crane's parents reported the injury to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education the following Monday, triggering an investigation. But the employer has never been fined, a result that baffles Crane.
He says he now manages physical pain in his hand, and mentally, remains bothered the company wasn't issued a fine. He believes employers should face big consequences and tough enforcement, but CBC News has learned the department has actually moved in the opposite direction.
According to documents obtained through freedom of information, the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education has shifted toward promoting training and safety culture in recent years. The total number of investigations, orders and warnings at Nova Scotia workplaces has dropped as a result.
A table released to CBC shows that in 2014, 3,722 orders were issued to workplaces. By 2020, only 673 orders were issued — a drop of 81 per cent.
Warnings fell 71 per cent from 2,954 in 2014 to 856 in 2020.
Yet the department did 3,495 inspections in 2020, a big increase on the 2,505 it did in 2014.
"The OHS division has worked collaboratively with various stakeholders including sector and safety associations, unions, employers and employees to reduce workplace injuries and illness," said spokesperson Krista Higdon in an email statement.
She said in 2017, the department implemented a program called Pathways to Compliance, which focuses on education first, and enforcement when required.
"In any particular year, the various approaches, improved compliance as well as the frequency of workplace incidents can impact the number of orders, warnings and investigations," said Higdon.
Joe Treen is not surprised by the numbers. As the Occupational Health and Safety director for Safety Services Nova Scotia, he advises employers on best practices and also audits workplaces.
"We should try to move that needle on [safety] culture before we try to punish people, because that drives reporting underground. That leads to people covering up or hiding things and not really learning from them," he said.
Fine never issued
In Crane's case, documents show one of the company's missteps was a lack of training.
But they also reveal an enforcement tool was recommended and never actually used.
Crane requested his OHS investigation file early in 2021 through freedom of information.
It shows an inspection overview of the incident determined the employer did not ensure that staff operating lift trucks were trained in regards to CSA standards and ANSI standards, which is a requirement by the province.
At least 10 orders were issued to Goodfellow Inc. following the accident, including the duty to disclose accident information, provide training records and inspection records of the forklift involved. The business also received a warning for disturbance of an accident scene.
The investigator recommended the company be fined — something that was never done, the records show.
The department doesn't know why the fine was never issued, but says a new monitoring system would prevent such an oversight in the future.
Company quick to respond, says vice-president
In an emailed statement, Goodfellow Inc. vice-president Dave Warren said the company "responded to this accident quickly and effectively."
"We acted professionally on this matter and complied with the investigation by Occupational Health and Safety," said Warren.
Warren said all lift truck drivers employed by Goodfellow Inc. receive proper training from an outside provider. He did not say if Crane and the forklift driver were trained prior to the May 2013 incident.
"We take the safety of all our employees in the highest regard," said Warren in an email. "We are very apologetic that this accident happened and we wish Mr. Crane all the best in his future endeavors."
The Department of Labour says Goodfellow Inc. complied with all orders and implemented corrective safety measures.
Treen says generally, punitive measures do have their place, but the goal of everyone involved in occupational health and safety should be prevention.
"It's not about blaming, it's not about causing trouble for somebody. It's about trying to fix a problem that could lead to somebody losing a life or having a life-altering injury."
with files from CBC's Elizabeth McMillan