Nova Scotia

Mother of worker killed in garbage truck faces 'maddening' wait for answers

The mother of a 21-year-old man who died after being struck by a compactor blade inside a garbage truck in Port Williams, N.S., said it's been a long and frustrating wait for answers about what happened and why her son ended up trapped.

EFR Environment and parent company RE Group faces charges following Ryan Durling's death

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

Ryan Durling was working as a waste collector on a quiet residential street in Port Williams, N.S., last year when he went through a side access door and into the back of the garbage truck to relieve himself, something workers commonly do when other options aren't available.

While inside, he was struck by a compactor blade designed to move garbage.

Durling, 21, of Margaretsville, N.S., died in hospital May 10, 2018.

Ryan's mother, Pamela Durling, said it's been a long and frustrating wait for answers about what happened and why her son ended up trapped. She still wonders why there were no mechanisms in place to prevent the compactor from running after someone had opened the access door. 

"There is a bathroom right down the road. Why couldn't [they] take him to the bathroom? You know what I mean? Why didn't [the crew] stop for a break somewhere along the way? But I don't know how things went that day," she said.

So far, she said no one has been able to answer many of her family's questions or explain whether her son was offered a proper break period or an alternative to a bathroom stop in the truck. 

Durling's employer, EFR Disposal Ltd., a waste-management company based in the Annapolis Valley, and its parent company, REgroup, now face four charges under Nova Scotia's Occupational Health and Safety Act.

EFR Environmental and its parent company, RE Group, face four charges each under Nova Scotia's Occupational Health and Safety Act. (Google Maps)

They're accused of failing to ensure the access door to the back of the garbage truck was fitted with interlocks. An interlock system would have prevented the door from opening when the parts inside were moving, or would have ensured they stopped automatically if the door was opened — requirements under the province's occupational health and safety regulations.

The two companies are also charged with failing "to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to ensure the health and safety" of workers — specifically by failing to put in place inspections or a process that would have flagged the missing interlocks.

In court documents, Crown prosecutor Alex Keaveny said workers urinated inside the truck while on garbage runs when there wasn't a washroom or private area nearby. He alleges the rear-ended loading truck didn't even have a padlock on the access door that employees used.

The allegations have yet to be tested in court.

Ken MacLean, a lawyer for REgroup, said the company can't comment on the case as it's an ongoing legal matter. CBC has also reached out to EFR Environmental and has yet to receive a response.

The case is scheduled to be back in Kentville provincial court on Nov. 21. 

Durling says her son Ryan planned to work with EFR Environmental during the spring cleanup before returning to his regular jobs. (CBC)

At the time of his death, Durling had taken time away from two other jobs at the Annavale Country Store and Home Hardware in Middleton so he could make a chunk of money during spring cleanup, a stretch when households are allowed to throw out large items. The previous fall, he had worked with EFR for a few weeks and had only planned to stay with the company temporarily.

Pamela Durling said her son, a volunteer firefighter, had recently earned his taekwondo black stripe, loved 4H and was proud to be Mi'kmaq.

"He had a huge heart. He would do anything for anybody to help them out. He was funny and caring," Durling said. "[He had] big dreams and aspirations and full of energy and just a general love of life … He was just out and just trying to work." 

Immediately after the incident, Durling spoke with the physician who saw Ryan in hospital and with company officials.

In the months that followed, she heard rumours and speculation about what had happened, but it wasn't until more than a year later that someone from the provincial Department of Labour was able to update her on what investigators believed took place.

However, Durling said she was told she would have to file a freedom-of-information request to try to receive a copy of the investigation report.

As of June, many details of the 14 acute workplace deaths in Nova Scotia in 2018 were still unknown. (CBC)

Durling believes her son's death was preventable. She still struggles to understand why workers were urinating in the truck and questions why no one sounded the alarm.

"I know Ryan ... if somebody would have said, 'You don't ever go in there,' he never would've went in there," she said. "We send our young ones off into the workplace every day. In this day and age, there shouldn't be any room for error, or any accidents, especially when you get around machinery."

Durling said it's "maddening" to have to wait months or years, if the case drags on, to see if she'll get answers to why her son ended up in the back of the truck and whether anything will be done to prevent similar situations in the future.

Documents obtained by CBC through a freedom-of-information request show that immediately after Durling's death, the provincial Department of Labour ordered the garbage truck be taken out of service while it investigated.

A month after Durling's death, the department ordered EFR to install interlocks on the truck and ensure the device is also installed on all other vehicles with garbage compactors and access doors.

This week, Shannon Kerr, a spokesperson for Labour and Advanced Education, said in a statement that as part of its investigation, the department has been looking at "safety features of similar waste disposal trucks and will be conducting the appropriate followup across the sector, which will include random site inspections and awareness activities." 

Pamela hopes her son's death is a wake-up call for employees, employers and families.

"I'd assumed that he was doing something that didn't pose any harm — to the best of my knowledge, throwing stuff in the back of the truck was all he had to do," she said. "I think we all need to be aware that these workplace accidents happen regularly still." 

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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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