Coroner's inquest makes 16 recommendations in Vale smelter death

A coroner's inquest into the death of Paul Rochette in 2015 has made its final recommendations to a jury.

'For Paul's sake and everyone in the workforce, I hope these recommendations are adhered to,' says co-worker

The parents of the late Paul Rochette, Edouard and Suzanne, say they are relieved the process is finally over. Among the 16 recommendations made by the five-person jury included that the length of time to get a coroner's inquest be shortened. (Benjamin Aube/CBC)

A coroner's inquest into the death of Vale worker Paul Rochette has made its final recommendations to a jury.

They include a shortening of the wait time to begin an inquest, as well as several safety measures specific to the maintenance and workings of crushing equipment. 

Rochette died on April 6, 2014 while working at Vale's Copper Cliff smelter. He was attempting to free a metal object —  a moil point, a tool used to crush ore — that had become stuck in the  smelter's ore crusher.

The inquest heard that Rochette heated and softened the stuck object with a torch, reducing the friction holding the moil point in place. That caused the crusher to spring back, propelling the 118-lb piece of metal from the machine.

Rochette's co-worker Justin Stewart sustained serious injuries, including a fractured skull. He also said he lost about 24 hours of his memory from the accident, which prevented him from giving a detailed account of what happened during the fatal smelter shift.

Stewart criticized what he called a lack of communication and a lack of safety procedures within the company and the Ministry of Labour, and was particularly upset about Vale's guilty plea settlement .

"We were never given our day in court. The [justice] system failed us with a cowardly accepted plea bargain. People need to be held accountable in order to learn from their mistakes," said Stewart.

"For Paul's sake and everyone in the workforce, I hope these recommendations are adhered to, to the point where they become regulations."

Justin Stewart was also injured on the evening Paul Rochette died at the Copper Cliff Smelter on April 6th, 2014. he is holding a photo of the smelter crew before Paul Rochette's final shift. (Benjamin Aube/ CBC)

'Blind leading the blind'

Stewart held up a picture of himself and Rochette about to enter the workplace. Rochette is holding a torch in the final photo that would ever be taken of him.

"Without a proper lineup, without key details that would have assisted Paul and myself on the decision-making process of removing the blunt (moil point), this is a prime example of the blind leading the blind," said Stewart.

"This accident was completely preventable and Paul should be here with us today."

Vale representative Peter Brady noted a joint investigation by  Vale and the United Steelworkers Local 6500 also proposed 58 recommendations, each of which have been implemented.

This included the addition of cameras inside the smelter's ore crushers to avoid workers having to look directly into the machine.

Julie Lefebvre, acting as counsel to the presiding Dr. Ray Sawkiw, suggested that recommendation be adopted by the jury, so it could be made mandatory, province-wide.

"Cameras would have made a huge difference in this incident," she told the jury.

Safety 'sacrificed for production numbers'

 A Rochette family friend and representative said there were safety processes in place that could have avoided the accident.

"And the fact they weren't used is inexcusable," said Ryan Kirwan.

"Safety is being sacrificed for production numbers [...] and until that stigma or the culture of being a safe worker is encouraged by all levels of management, accidents like this will continue to happen."

A number of people testified during the week-long inquest, including a mechanical engineer with the Ministry of Labour, the smelter's maintenance manager at the time of the incident, and other workers.

The goal of the inquest this week isn't to place further liability on any one person or company, but rather to prevent such an incident from happening again.

Rochette family representative Ryan Kirwan hopes the recommendations from this week's inquest will lead to workplace changes at the provincial level. (Benjamin Aube/ CBC)

'The crusher spoke to people that day'

Union representative Ryan St. George also made a final submission. He noted that nothing could have stopped that metal object from flying out of the crusher and killing Rochette.

But he added that Vale's safety procedures weren't followed, laying blame at the foot of the employer. Multiple workers on site  testified the crusher made a "large sound" while the moil point was stuck in its jaws.

"The crusher spoke to people that day," St. George told the jury. "This is my opinion, but when it made that sound, it told us it was going to take a life."