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Investigator finds 6 safety issues at B.C. shipping container port after worker’s death

Maintenance worker Dan Alder died while atop a 56-metre crane at Deltaport in December

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, THE TYEE

Six weeks after a worker died at Deltaport, a federal investigation found six safety violations and ordered changes, The Tyee has learned.

In a letter to Global Container Terminals, which operates the port, federal Labour Program senior investigator Ron Johnson identified the violations, including the failure to adequately assess risks or develop a rescue plan for workers on its towering dockside cranes when their elevators weren’t working.

Maintenance worker Dan Alder died on Dec. 14 after going into medical distress while atop a 56-metre gantry crane.

The elevator to the top of the crane was not working, something sources say was a common occurrence. First aid attendants and paramedics had to climb 23 flights of stairs to reach Alder and improvise a way to lower him to an ambulance.

Johnson investigated the site the next day. He found the company had failed to assess the risk faced by workers on its dockside cranes when elevators were not working and had not developed an adequate rescue plan.

The company also had not created up-to-date instructions on how to provide first aid to workers atop those cranes, he found, ordering them to fix the contraventions by Feb. 3.

Johnson’s findings are part of a broader federal investigation into Alder’s death. The port is federally regulated and Johnson’s report said he found violations of the Canada Labour Code and Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

Present and former workers have told The Tyee they believe Alder’s death might have been prevented if the years-long issue of elevator problems on cranes had been addressed.

The Tyee has reached out to GCT for comment as well as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 502, which represents workers at Deltaport.

GCT spokesman Marko Dekovic said the company was aware of the direction order and had no plans to appeal.

The company has declined to provide further details, saying earlier this week that it would not be appropriate for the company to comment on an ongoing review. The company has also launched its own internal probe into Alder’s death, Dekovic said in an earlier statement.

The ILWU has not responded to several requests for comment from The Tyee regarding Alder’s death.

But present and former workers at Deltaport say the safety issues began years ago.

Paul Houle, who worked at Deltaport from 2005 to 2019, said Alder was “one of the nicest guys on the waterfront” and may have died unnecessarily.

Houle said he was trapped on a crane for more than three hours in 2015 or 2016 after suffering a fall that injured his leg and shoulder.

Had the elevator been working, Houle said, it would have taken him less than an hour to get off the crane. But he instead was forced to descend painfully.

“They basically got me to the stairs and then I bum-dropped my way down,” Houle said.

He said he was later approached by a joint employer-union safety committee.

“They asked me how the accident could have been prevented, what safeguards could have been in place to prevent it from happening,” Houle said. His first recommendation was to fix problems with the elevators.

Lorne Stevens, a former vice-president with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 502, which represents workers at that site, said in a previous interview with The Tyee that many other workers had flagged chronic problems with the elevators. Two other sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed that account, and said the elevators sometimes went long periods of time without being repaired.

A representative from the Delta fire department previously told The Tyee they had been called out to Deltaport on more than one occasion because of a broken elevator, and said workers had even been trapped in the elevators at times.

Sean Tucker, a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia and an expert in occupational health and safety, said Alder’s death raises a number of key questions about safety at the port.

“It’s a tragic story, but it seems — based on what’s been reported — that this is something that was foreseeable,” Tucker said.

Major ports are federally regulated, like trains or airlines, and are thus inspected by the federal Labour Program and not WorkSafeBC, which has jurisdiction over most worksites in British Columbia.

A spokeswoman for Employment and Social Development Canada said Deltaport had been inspected seven times in the past five years and had recorded three deaths, including Alder’s. The department declined to release the results of those inspections.

Tucker said that level of inspection was “woefully inadequate” for a worksite the size of Deltaport, which is the single largest container port in the Lower Mainland and one of the largest port worksites in the country.

Stevens said earlier that the union had submitted numerous hazard complaints about the elevators, which he said often broke down and stayed out of operation for days at a time in some instances.

Chris McLeod, the head of the University of British Columbia’s Occupational and Environmental Health Division at the School of Population and Public Health, said he was shocked to learn the port did not have a rescue plan for workers on those cranes.

“Frankly, that’s appalling they would not have a rescue plan in place,” MacLeod said. “There’s just no excuse for that.

Houle said it was time to confront the challenges at Deltaport, which he believes may have had a role in his former colleague’s death.

“I was so, and I’m still emotional. It was not necessary. He did not have to die,” Houle said.

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