If you die on the job in Nova Scotia, the public might not find out
Safety advocates say N.S. needs to be more open about workplace fatalities to help prevent similar tragedies
Shannon Kempton often ponders what might have prevented her father from trying to detach a gas tank from a derelict 1998 Dodge Caravan with an acetylene torch.
Peter Kempton died after sustaining severe burns to 90 per cent of his body in 2013 at a now-closed auto repair shop in Dartmouth, N.S.
"You think about the what ifs because you don't have anything else," his daughter said.
Kempton said the Department of Labour has never confirmed what he was doing in the minutes prior to the gruesome accident. She pieced it together through media reports and eventually heard details from witnesses at a trial five years later.
She and other safety advocates say Nova Scotia needs to be more open about workplace fatalities, arguing timely information is necessary, not just for family members, but also for the public in order to help prevent similar tragedies.
"Telling me what happened that day, that he was under a car and he was working on a gas tank and it exploded and that sort of information, I don't think compromises a court case," she said. "And for families just to get some answers is so important because you feel like you're in the dark."
Kempton has often encountered other families who struggle with unanswered questions.
"Not knowing is probably one of the hardest things," she said.
Although descriptions of workplace fatalities are publicly available in many provinces, finding out even basic details is challenging in Nova Scotia. The Labour Department refuses to provide descriptions of incidents except through freedom-of-information requests.
Last year, 14 people in Nova Scotia died from traumatic injuries suffered at work, up from five in 2017 and two in 2016.
A CBC News investigation has learned the locations and some details of each 2018 workplace death after obtaining redacted descriptions using freedom-of-information legislation.
Five fatalities are still under investigation. The description of what happened in three of those cases is blacked out.
Nova Scotia's approach is in sharp contrast to some other provinces.
Alberta publishes some workplace investigation reports. British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick have searchable online databases that include a brief description of the circumstances that led to a worker being injured or killed, as well as the date, type of job they were doing and their industry.
Several other provinces list summaries of individual incidents in annual reports.
In recent years, the Labour Department has stopped issuing public releases about workplace fatalities after determining "there was really little value in doing that," said Harold Carroll, the province's executive director of occupational health and safety.
So far, two 2018 fatalities have resulted in the Labour Department issuing orders related to safe work practices, though they may not have been directly related to fatality.
After a fall at Gerald's Ultramar in Glace Bay, N.S., which was never reported in the media as a fatality, the department ordered the business to use equipment properly, conduct a hazard assessment and train workers to mitigate any related risks.
Labour also ordered Service Nova Scotia to provide documentation and records after a man died in head-on crash in Spa Springs that investigators characterized as "unavoidable."
The two-page document released under freedom-of-information laws lists four separate fishing mishaps that resulted in the death of six people, five of whom are named. The names of the other people who died on the job are not included.
CBC and other local media reported some details of the incidents after releases from police or questions from the public.
Among them, a worker was struck by a Transportation Department vehicle in Queensland and a man died after the dump truck he was driving went into the Bedford Basin. A 22-year-old died after falling at a construction site for a Kent Building Supplies Store.
Mark Fleming, a Saint Mary's University psychology professor who focuses on occupational health and safety, said along with awareness, analyzing the underlying causes of workplace deaths is key to prevention.
Looking at workplace accident trends can help identify patterns beyond that fatalities frequently happen in the construction and fishing industries, he said.
Both New Brunswick and B.C. keep track of "close calls" or "near misses." Fleming said looking at fatalities, serious injuries and situations that could have been worse can help ensure they're avoided.
"If you don't have that data, then you know we're just going to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again, which is really sad," he said.
The department does confirm to media when investigators are called to an incident and confirms deaths if police or another agency have already done so. It releases the date of an accident and the industry involved after the fact.
Carroll said investigators try to maintain regular contact with families but are limited in what they can say. That is due to the investigation process and that there is the potential for a court case.
They have up to two years to investigate and decide whether there has been a violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Carroll said the department focuses its energy on investigating the circumstances that led to an injury or death and tries to determine if anyone has violated the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Staff work to increase awareness about safety by zeroing in on specific sectors and working with safety associations, he said.
Nova Scotia's Workers' Compensation Board does release data related to the number of fatalities, the type of injuries sustained and the industries affected. The Labour Department stopped putting together an annual report on Occupational Health after 2013, which Carroll attributed to a lack of uptake.
Carroll said an investigation may not result in any proposed changes to existing regulations, but it could reveal more education is needed so that employers and employees know to follow them.
"Was there a gap in awareness? Was there something the employer didn't do or the employee wasn't aware of? So that's what we look for and then we'll test that against what we currently have for information sources, prevention, awareness and that type of stuff," he said.
Some workplace deaths do lead to rule changes and a shift within industry.
After several deadly falls on construction sites in 2013, the province hired more safety inspectors and revised fall-protection regulations.
The number of safety complaints related to fall protection, as well as work orders, rose. The number of claims related to fall injuries went down.
"Five, six years ago, employers and employees or people were scared to call us," Carroll said. "Now they want to call us because they get information from us and we share information willingly. And so that's been part of that learning experience."
While the province doesn't publish specifics about workplace deaths, it does highlight people's experiences in awareness campaigns produced in conjunction with the WCB, the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and Threads of Life, a charity that supports injured workers and families affected by workplace tragedies.
Stuart MacLean, the WCB's chief executive officer, said the Labour Department decides what information should be released after an accident.
But he said after time has passes, personal stories are a powerful tool to show that workplace injuries and deaths aren't just an inevitable statistic. They're also highlighted at events such as the Annual Day of Mourning in April.
"Every single fatality has a family associated with it, has a community that's impacted by it," MacLean said. "It might seem opportunistic, but we need people to understand the impact of fatalities so that they can say, 'OK. We can't have that happening, not on my watch. It's just not acceptable.'"
Kempton still worries the province isn't being up front about the frequency of workplace fatalities.
"I feel like they're trying to hide that fact sometimes from people and to only look at the good numbers and show that whatever initiatives they're trying to put in place are working," she said.
At events promoting safety, Kempton frequently talks about her father. She describes the things he has missed: weddings, graduations and teaching his grandson how to hunt and fish.
"If just one person gets something out of my story and it makes them think twice before they do something unsafe then I feel like something good has happened from what we went through. And it's also a way to keep Dad's memory alive. You know he's not here and I don't want him forgotten," she said.
Though Peter Kempton died nearly six years ago, charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against his employer are still winding through the court system.
Elie Hoyeck has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to be tried for them in September. He was found not guilty of criminal negligence earlier this year.
Shannon Kempton hopes when it's all over, she'll finally get answers to all her questions.
With files from Susan Allen, Josh Hoffman and Emily Latimer