‘Frightened’ Hamilton workers rally to protest third National Steel Car death in 2 years
Machine operator Peter Thomas says that after years of working in a dangerous environment at National Steel Car in Hamilton, « it’s come to a point where something has to change ».
Thomas said that during her time at the wagon maker, there were several incidents where a crane dropped the item she was picking up. He said that despite reports from employees, management has been slow to make safety improvements.
Thomas was among dozens of workers who gathered outside the wagon builder on Thursday afternoon after welder Quoc Le, 51, died on Monday. This is the third fatality following an industrial accident at the plant in 21 months.
As passing cars and transport trucks regularly honked their horns, rally workers told CBC Hamilton that projects were proceeding at a breakneck pace, with employee safety appearing to take a back seat.
A worker described lasting trauma following a workplace incident involving a co-worker. Several declined to share their names for fear of retaliation at work, but Thomas was not afraid to speak up.
« It’s the truth, » he said. “What can they do to me for telling the truth?
Another worker, Kevin Huggins, said while he felt it was possible to stay safe at National Steel Car, it’s the workers’ responsibility to watch their backs.
« It’s a jungle out there, » he said.
CBC Hamilton attempted to contact National Steel Car to comment on the safety issues, but could not reach anyone on Thursday. The company also did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday following Le’s death.
United Steelworkers Local 7135, which represents workers at the plant, is asking Hamilton police to open a criminal negligence investigation into the workplace deaths. He also wants the Department of Labor to review the company’s safety procedures in conjunction with the company and the union.
« Our members are not only angry »
In the days following Le’s death, there was a change in tone among the rest of the factory workers, Local 7135 President Frank Crowder said.
“Our members are not only angry, they are scared,” Crowder, also a welder at the plant, told CBC Hamilton in a telephone interview Thursday. « I get a lot of calls from members looking for another job because they think it’s too dangerous.
« Their families, their wives, ask them not to go back, to please find other jobs and work elsewhere. »
Crowder said he didn’t know Le personally, but was told he left behind a spouse and at least one child.
According to the union, Le lived in Hamilton and had previously worked at National Steel Car, but had left for another job and recently returned, working just over 1,000 hours before his death.
Hamilton police said his death involved a falling bulkhead weighing approximately 2,000 pounds.
“Our statistics show that new hires are more likely to have accidents,” Crowder says.
He added that he cannot say if this factored into Le’s death, but noted that it could imply that better training for new or returning employees is needed.
« It was enough after a [death] over the past few years,” he said. “We now have three.
The Hamilton Police Department and the Department of Labor are still investigating Le’s death.
Police have made « no charge decisions at this time, » spokesperson Jackie Penman said in an email to CBC Hamilton on Thursday.
Penman said potential outcomes of the investigation could include charges by the department under the Occupational Health and Safety Act or criminal charges within the jurisdiction of police.
“This investigation takes time,” she said.
The company is closing its facilities until next week
Ahead of Thursday’s rally, National Steel Car said it would close the facility for the rest of this week as a safety measure to protect people entering and exiting the plant.
He also locked the door to his parking lot for employees, so rally workers parked on the street. As a result, cars lined Kenilworth Avenue from Burlington Street heading north.
« We have been notified of a protest planned for this afternoon at our main entrance that will prevent safe entry and exit from our facility, » read a statement posted on the company’s Facebook page. « Our top priority remains the health and safety of our employees, customers, suppliers and partners…We expect to resume operations next week. »
Earlier this week, after Le passed away, the company canceled Monday and Tuesday shifts.
Crowder said he was at work Thursday morning before closing. He said he and another union representative were wearing shirts that read, « Stop the killings and enforce the law, » and management told them to leave. The same shirts were on display at the rally, with many sporting black t-shirts with red and white lettering.
Crowder believes this incident should fall under the Westray Act of the Criminal Code, which allows courts to assign criminal liability to organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those who direct the work of others. It was created following the collapse of the Westray mine in Nova Scotia in 1992, but has not been widely used.
« This law is rarely, if ever, enforced, » Crowder said. « A lot of police forces aren’t even aware of the existence of this law. »