The Town of Lake Cowichan says it is in the process of appealing a nearly $22,000 fine from WorkSafeBC issued earlier this year for non-compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation.
On Jan. 26, WorkSafeBC—also known as the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia—levied a penalty of $21,810.66 against the town, related to a workplace inspection at Lakeview Park campground last fall.
“We have actually asked for a review of the fine,” said Town of Lake Cowichan chief administrative officer Joseph Fernandez. “We are going through a process. We have requested a review so hopefully if we’re able to convince the review board to see if we can get a reduction on that.”
The penalty comes as a result of an inspection at Lakeview Park campground on Nov. 26, in which a WorkSafeBC prevention officer observed the campground washrooms were being renovated.
According to a WorkSafeBC report filed the same day: “On being advised that no pre-renovation hazardous material survey work had been done prior to the disturbance of building materials, [the inspector] stated that the work must stop until the required hazardous materials assessment was done.”
This stop-work order was lifted on Dec. 4 with no asbestos or other hazardous materials found on the worksite.
However, the violation for which the town is being fined—the requirement that a building or structure be inspected for hazardous materials prior to demolition or renovation—still stands.
WorkSafeBC became aware of the renovations at Lakeview Park during a different investigation into the demolition and removal of a shed at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives. A person or persons employed by the town refused to remove the structure because of its Duroid shingles, which are suspected to contain asbestos. Ultimately, a group of volunteers from the Kaatza Museum Society removed the shed. The WorkSafeBC report states the volunteers “were unaware of the asbestos potential.”
Fernandez said the town recently completed an inventory of all the town-owned buildings that could contain asbestos. He said WorkSafeBC first contacted the town in 2014 about the need for such an inventory as well as safety related policies and procedures for workers, which the town then contracted out two companies.
“We had 36 buildings we had to look at and 72,000 square feet involved. Takes a bit of time,” said Fernandez. “We’re not the only municipality that are going through it so the people who are doing the work are very limited so it’s not like we can phone up and have them come the next day to do our assessments. It is time consuming.”
Mayor Ross Forrest echoed this sentiment and emphasized the town was not trying to shirk or avoid its safety responsibilities.
“I can honestly tell you I don’t get involved with the day-to-day operations but I know our management meets regularly and safety is of the utmost importance to the organization of the town,” said Forrest. “We have never had any intent to put any of our employees or anybody else at risk.”
More than 20 of the town’s employees (at the Lake Cowichan municipal office, public works department and the Cowichan Lake Educational Centre) are members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-1937, which published an article about the WorkSafeBC penalty in the latest edition of its newsletter, Solidarity News.
In the article, titled ‘Problems in Town of Lake Cowichan,’ USW business agent Dusty Palmer outlined some of the reasons for the WorkSafeBC penalty and stated “Lately there have been numerous issues that have arisen on a broad range of topics.”
Palmer told the Gazette she had no comments in addition to her written piece.
The article also raised questions about a pile of cinderblocks covered in lead paint kept at a dumping site leased by the town in the forest near Lakeview Park campground.
“How does it happen that two truckloads of lead contaminated blocks end up in a pit above the lake? From the direction of town officials? Those who insist they comply with rules and regulations?” said Palmer in her article, available on USW 1-1937’s website.
In the piece, Palmer acknowledged she did not know whether the cinder blocks had been tested for leachability, but phoned the mayor to tell him about the potential situation.
“He was angry someone had informed me … I gave him an opportunity to correct a situation regarding hazardous waste in the environment and was told I was on a witch hunt. The mayor hung up on me.”
Mayor Forrest told the Gazette he did receive a call from Palmer about the cinder blocks, which was the first he had heard about them. He said he did ask who had told her about it but not because he was trying to ferret out a whistleblower.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to blame our employee for [reporting]. I just wanted to know who let her know so I could find out what the heck she was talking about,” said Forrest.
He admitted hanging up the phone on Palmer because he felt she was “challenging his integrity” and he did not want to say something he might regret.
Both Forrest and Fernandez said the cinderblocks in question were removed from the minor baseball dugouts at Centennial Park last fall and were disposed of appropriately. They said an environmental assessment by North West Environmental Group determined the amount of lead paint on the bricks was not sufficient to pose a risk of leaching contamination, and shared an email with the Gazette stating as much.
A representative from North West Environmental Group said the company could neither confirm nor deny statements related to this case because of privacy agreements it has with all its clients.
“There’s no cover up,” said Fernandez.
He said he did not want to comment on Palmer’s article directly because it was prepared for USW’s membership.
“If that’s how they want to report, I think that’s how we’ll leave it,” he said. “We don’t want to get into a battle with anybody.”
Fernandez said the town has historically had a good working relationship with USW.
“I think since the last set of negotiations which is back at the beginning of 2014 the relationship has been a little strained, I think that’s the way I can describe it. And it’s not anything we’ve done. It’s just the nature of the beast I think,” he said.