Scott Hemstad remembers watching New York City firefighters on the news battling deadly flames surrounding the Twin Towers during his first month on the job.
He sat in the kitchen of the town firehall with his new boss, the lieutenant fire chief, wondering if he would ever find himself in his American comrade’s boots.
In nearly 20 years as a firefighter, Hemstad, who joined Vernon’s fire department as deputy chief last June, said he’s fought his share of deadly structure fires. He’s seen and talked about some “troubling” things. What truly bothers him, are the troubling things people don’t talk about.
“When we go into a structure fire there are plastics and formaldehydes that give off an absolute toxic bath of chemicals that we’re exposed to. That doesn’t make for dramatic stories and we don’t talk about it as much as we should,” Hemstad told the audience of 50 gathered at City Hall Friday for Vernon’s Day of Mourning.
The ceremony was one of several taking place around the province over the weekend in recognition of those whose lives have been forever changed by a workplace accident or illness. The official Day of Mourning is April 28
“We don’t talk about all that stuff we’re exposed to and how it accumulates in our bodies over time — and we don’t talk about how because of that, firefighters are exposed to an increased risk of cancer. It’s one of those hidden risks that people don’t think about.”
Nevertheless, he added, they take lives.
“Last year the same lieutenant who greeted me on my first day on the job… he died of cancer,” Hemstad said, pausing briefly to wipe a tear from his eye.
“He died from cancer he got from being exposed to that stuff over thirty years of being a firefighter — just doing his job. And I think about him every day.”
Hemstad continued, urging the audience to consider the safety of others in the workplace, as well as themselves.
Mike Watt, who spoke at the ceremony on behalf of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, echoed Hemstad, adding that even workplaces with near spotless safety records consider the message behind the Day of Mourning.
As an arena attendant in Vernon, Watt said he and his colleagues are charged with the safety of up to 1000 people, including themselves, on regular days and up to 3,000 users on a game day.
Until recently, Watt said, he had not heard of any fatalities caused by an accident in an arena.
“That changed in 2017, but it had been about 30 years without a major incident,” he said. “That’s a very good safety record but we’re still constantly improving.”
While he applauds improvement, WorkSafeBC’s Stewart Babineau said even one workplace death is too many.
“Last year, we lost 158 workers,” Babineau said.
“Those people lost their lives as a result of their work. Each of these losses are a tragedy.” Occupational disease, he continued, remains the single leading cause of workplace death. It took 87 lives last year.”
He said most of those “workers” died from asbestos-related diseases.
Other speakers at Friday’s ceremony included MLA Eric Foster, Councillor Juliette Cunningham and acting superintendent Gord Stewart, who represented members of the local RCMP detachment.