When a worker dies, silence descends…

It’s been a month since a Michelin worker died at the Waterville plant. Why don’t we know more about what really happened? Will we ever?

Michelin’s Waterville plant

I WAS CURIOUS. I thought I remembered seeing a brief news report last month about a man who’d died in an industrial accident at Michelin’s Waterville plant.

The details I recalled were sketchy to non-existent, so I wanted to know what had been learned in the more than a month since the incident and get an update on the state of the investigation into its cause.

I checked the government website, but I couldn’t find even the original news release the department of labour, skills and immigration must have released at the time.

So, I emailed the department, asking for directions to a copy of the original release and a status update on its investigation.

While I waited — the department did respond quickly on a Friday afternoon — I did some more Googling.

It seems the first report about the incident appeared in the Chronicle Herald on Friday, May 13, two days after the man died.

A man was killed in an industrial accident at the Michelin Tire plant in Waterville on Wednesday night.

On Friday the provincial Labour Department said it is in the early stages of its investigation and a stop-work order for a piece of machinery remains in place while the investigation is ongoing.

The department wouldn’t say what happened, but sources say the man became entangled by a piece of machinery.

He was freed, but he died later in hospital.

The department wouldn’t say what happened…

Sources say…

There were a few follow-up reports, most based on a matching story two days later from the Canadian Press, which included a labour departmental disclaimer — “As this is an active investigation, we cannot confirm details regarding the incident” — and an emailed statement from Andrew Mutch, the president of Michelin Canada, confirming what was already known and adding for good PR boilerplate measure:

The safety of our employees is our number one priority, and we are working to understand the circumstances around this event.

After that, only silence from both the company and the labour department.

But it seems they weren’t giving the silent treatment just to the media.

After the news reports, someone posted on a Facebook page for Michelin retirees:

I see in the paper this morning that someone was killed at the Waterville plant recently. Does anyone have any details? The article said he was sucked into a machine. My worst fear.

To which another person responded:

It’s my uncle. What is in the article is all we know as of right now as well because we have to wait for the investigation.

Did no one from the government or the company keep the family informed about what happened and why, or update them on the investigation as it unfolded?

Has an investigation actually even unfolded?

As I tried to wrap my head around that, Heather Fairburn, a spokesperson for the department of labour, emailed me back.

Remember that I’d asked where to find the original news release, as well as “the current status of the investigation and when more information about the incident is expected to be released.”

Hello Stephen, I’m providing the following response on behalf of Labour, Skills and Immigration:

“Workplace fatalities are devastating for those affected. On May 15, the department provided confirmation to media that a workplace incident had occurred at the Michelin Waterville Plant on May 11, 2022 that resulted in a fatality. A Stop Work Order on the equipment was issued and has since been lifted. As our investigation remains ongoing, no further details can be provided.”

Should it be helpful, you can learn more about how the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration conducts workplace investigations online: Workplace accidents and fatalities: investigation process – Government of Nova Scotia, Canada

I was still curious to know what had happened to the department’s original news release, so I emailed back: “One question: Where can I find the news release?”

I got a one-sentence reply: “The department provided confirmation to media.”

So, let me see if I have this right. A man died in a workplace accident at Nova Scotia’s largest private — and most secretive — employer, and the department responsible for investigating workplace accidents doesn’t deem that worthy of even a news release.

In fact, it waits for someone to tell someone who eventually tells a reporter and then only barely confirms the death days later.

Oh, and if you follow that link the department so helpfully provided, you’ll discover that workplace accident investigations — designed to “determine what went wrong and hold those who were responsible accountable” — can take up to two years to complete.

Does anyone ever get held accountable?

According to the department’s own figures, 20 people died in workplace incidents last year.

It has been 18 years since the Westray Law — named after the 1992 Nova Scotia mine disaster that killed 26 coal miners — “established new legal duties for workplace health and safety and imposed severe penalties for violations that result in injuries or death.”

During that time, 429 Nova Scotians have been “killed at work or because of work in our province.”

How many charges have been laid as a result?

One.

The law, says the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour — which fought for its establishment — isn’t working, or it isn’t being properly enforced.

Instead of over-worked or under-employed departmental inspectors taking up to two years to decide whether to lay provincial charges that “mostly bring a fine, not jail time,” the federation wants trained police officers to launch  criminal investigations first to determine “if foul play was involved.”

“Changing workplace safety will only happen when employers, including those in the board room, learn that if negligence is determined in a workplace death, they could and should go to jail.”

Don’t hold your breath.

***

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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  1. Thanks for writing about this, Stephen. It happens too often, not just at Michelin. And if there’s a reason for the death, it’s not an accident — it’s not an act of God but something that could have been prevented. “Incident” is much closer a description.

    Whatever it’s called, 429 doesn’t accurately describe the number of job-related deaths in Nova Scotia in 18 years. So many others die of health-related issues than a safety hazard like being trapped in a machine. (How the work is organised also counts a lot for safety hazards — too often issues of training, time pressures, company expectations, etc. are hidden behind the obvious reason). Many others die earlier than they might have, their lives having been made miserable as the real costs of protection get out-sourced to the rest of us through the health and social support systems. It’s hard to know the real numbers but the lowest estimates I know are five times reported deaths.

    So what’s the Nova Scotia story? And what’s the government doing about it? Or others?

    Reply

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