Nova Scotia

Guilty plea in N.S. drug lab death

Relatives of a Nova Scotia worker who died after inhaling a chemical that caused his lungs to fill with fluid say the fine levied against his employer is just a "slap on the hand" for a giant drug manufacturer.

Relatives of a Nova Scotia worker who died after inhaling a chemical that caused his lungs to fill with fluid say the fine levied against his employer is just a "slap on the hand" for a giant drug manufacturer.

Sepracor Canada pleaded guilty Monday for failing to provide venting for Roland Daigle, who died after inhaling fumes so toxic they triggered a buildup of fluid in his lungs over an 18-hour span.

The plea came as part of a deal between the Crown and Sepracor Canada to drop four other safety charges under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act in Daigle's death. The multinational firm was also fined $45,000.

The plea bargain and the fine for the Oct. 7, 2008, incident drew the ire of Daigle's family.

His three sisters and his brother handed out a statement at the provincial courthouse in Windsor, saying the penalty was "a slap on the hand of the giant pharmaceutical company."

A larger fine would have sent a more stern message, said Carole Wheatley, one of the sisters.

"If the fines were higher it would make the employers more careful about what goes on in their own establishments," she said outside court. "You shouldn't go to work and die."

Crown lawyer Bill Ferguson told Judge Claudia MacDonald that Daigle was at his workstation at the Windsor factory handling the chemical trimethylsilyl diazomethane.

Due to a renovation, the venting hood that should have been in place to suck away fumes wasn't working, said Ferguson.

Ferguson said the company had notified employees the vent hood wasn't working, and had made a list of various procedures to avoid that day.

Chemical "rots" lungs: Crown

However, the Crown said, there was no notice to employees to avoid working with the chemical and the vapour it produced.

Daigle started to feel ill overnight and began coughing up blood, said Ferguson. Hours later, he was sent to intensive care in a Halifax hospital.

"The chemical destroys your lungs," Ferguson said.

"It sort of rots them so they don't get any air and therefore you can suck in air, but it doesn't get in your system. You're smothering."

He said the hospital didn't seem to understand the impact of the chemical, and wasn't able to determine how to treat exposure to it.

Another option for Daigle would have been to wear some form of individual breathing apparatus, like a gas mask, at his work station, he added.

"That wasn't done," Ferguson said. "I'm not sure … if that was because it was not needed or whether it was because they didn't have the gear."

According to their statement, the family said they can't understand why some of the other charges — such as an alleged failure to provide personal safety equipment — were dropped.

"Our questions remain unanswered," the statement said.

The court agreed with the Crown and Sepracor's joint recommendation to dismiss charges the firm failed to ensure adequate personal protection equipment and that the employee was instructed in the safe use of the chemical.

Information sheets changed

Two other charges — that Sepracor failed to instruct an employee in safe use of a substance in the company's lab and failed to ensure that no person would disturb the scene of an accident — were also dismissed.

Sepracor lawyer Mick Ryan told the judge that the company had a good safety record in Nova Scotia.

"This was an unforeseen and unfortunate incident," he said.

He said the fine was reasonable, saying "it's a fair resolution of an unfortunate situation."

Shelley Gray, the Labour Department investigator who worked on the file, said it was her personal view that fines could be stiffer.

"I would like to see higher fines for workplace fatalities," Gray said. "The government in general wants that and is increasing the fine levels."

She said the maximum fine for a failure to provide venting was $250,000 at the time of the incident.

"If the [Crown] feels it's best to drop four charges in order to get a guilty plea on one, then that's their role in terms of how this should proceed," she said.

Gray added that the information sheets describing the lab chemical in Canada have now been changed to indicate that trimethylsilyl diazomethane can damage lungs.

Daigle's family said the change should have come sooner.

"We hope the pharmaceutical industry is listening, and that further change will come about in the ways these companies operate," said Lynda MacDonald, one of Daigle's sisters.

"We can only hope nobody suffers a similar tragedy to our brother."