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Changes coming to mushroom farms

B.C.’s Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said most of the 15 recommendations made by a coroner’s jury into the deaths of three mushroom farm workers will be implemented — but there are challenges.

“All of the recommendations make sense,” said MacDiarmid on Tuesday. “I think we heard the jury’s recommendations on a Wednesday, and that night the CEO of WorkSafe BC started working on them.”

The jury made numerous recommendations aimed at WorkSafe BC after a series of safety mistakes led to the death of three farm workers of Vietnamese background and serious, permanent injuries to two others on A-1 Farms in south Langley in 2008.

The three workers died and two others have severe brain injuries as a result of toxic gases being released in a confined brown water shed, where a worker unclogged a pipe stuffed with straw and chicken manure.

The owners were fined $300,000 but have since declared bankruptcy. The fines have not been paid. The mushroom farm is now up for sale.

MacDiarmid said despite a recommendation by the jury to increase the number of inspections, her government had already been doing that.

“Immediately after this terrible tragedy we increased the number of prevention officers who went around to all the mushroom composting farms in B.C. and spoke to workers about confined spaces,” she said.

Some of the recommendations will prove to be difficult, such as making it mandatory for all farm workers to take two days of occupational safety training and be given a certificate, similar to the Food Safe program.

WorkSafe BC said there are too many farms out there for them to go to. MacDiarmid said the other issue is many farms have transient workers, like berry pickers, who only stay for short stays.

WorkSafe confirmed that it already met with the FARSHA (Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association) to implement the jury’s first two recommendations.

Those are to require active aeration of all brown water tanks in mushroom composting farms and require that a registered engineer supervise and approve the design and construction of all new mushroom composting facilities, including the brown water system, before they are allowed to operate.

As for the recommendation that all ambulances be equipped with an oxygen sensor, MacDiarmid said that is up to BC Ambulance.

In 2006, the same recommendation was made after two paramedics died going into a confined space to save mine employees in Kimberly. Ambulances are still not equipped.

MacDiarmid said WorkSafe BC has had a “tremendous focus” on workers’ safety in the past few years.

Workers being killed on the job are down almost 40 per cent in B.C., she said.

“Still, no one should die at work. There is still more work to be done,” she said.

According to WorkSafe BC, in 2008, there were four deaths at farms in B.C. and 625 injury claims. In 2011, there were four fatalities and 486 injuries. In 2010, there were no farm fatalities.

MacDiarmid said she has never met the families who lost loved ones on this farm but watched them speak out on the TV.

“I think the key message I get from the families is they don’t want this to happen to more families. We can and will learn from this tragedy,” she said.

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