The owners of a Langley mushroom farm where three men were killed by poison gas in 2008 were unaware of occupational health and safety laws but advised workers to be careful on the job, Surrey Provincial Court was told Friday.Two companies along with three directors were in court for sentencing after pleading guilty to contravening the Workers’ Compensation Act and health and safety regulations.
Safety training at the farm didn’t exist, the Crown told Judge Ken Ball at the hearing, which didn’t finish and will be put over to a later date.
On Friday the court heard for the first time the full details of what happened that day.
Crown prosecutor Ron Kockx told Judge Ball that the tragedy occurred at a Langley composting facility that mixed chicken manure, straw and water to produce substrate to grow mushrooms.
The operation was having trouble with one of its water pumps, which turned out to be caused by a plugged pipe.
A plumber was hired to remove the blockage but had no success, telling the owners they needed to bring in a sewer pumping company, which was never done.
Instead, workers were asked to fix the problem.
When the first worker went inside an enclosed shed and down a ladder, he removed a flange on the blocked pipe and said there was a strange smell. He then collapsed face-down in water covering the floor.
Initially two workers were in the shed, but other workers tried to rescue their colleagues as they collapsed, one by one.
The Crown said the workers were killed by hydrogen sulphide gas, which is water soluble and had been released when the pipe was opened.
When ambulance paramedics arrived they told other workers to stay back and waited until a contained space team arrived, even though they could hear one man inside calling for help.
It took about 20 minutes before the team of firefighters arrived with special equipment to allow them to breathe in the shed.
In addition to the three workers killed, two other employees suffered brain damage in the incident.
Meanwhile, the families of the three men killed are hoping the owners are sent to jail, not just fined.
Phoung Le, the wife of Michael Phan, one of the men who suffered severe brain damage, told reporters Friday outside the hearing that the government and the judge need to impose jail time to send a message to employers who violate safety regulations, causing people to die.
She said fines won’t be enough, especially when the company has declared bankruptcy.
“Nothing will pay for the lives that have been wasted in this case,” Le said outside court, speaking with the aid of an interpreter.
“I hope the judge will impose some jail time, heavy jail time,” she said.
The Crown did not ask for jail time but asked for fines for all accused, submitting that the overall total should be hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the hearing continues the defence is expected to ask for a fine to be imposed and no jail time.
Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour also called for jail time for the company directors on Friday.
“If you take illegal action at your place of work and that illegal action leads to the death of workers, then there should be tough penalties for that, not fines for bankrupt fines for bankrupt companies,” he told reporters outside court.
“This company has already declared it’s going into bankruptcy and disappearing,” he said.
“I’m deathly afraid at the end of all this, the company, which has declared bankruptcy, is going to get a fine that will never be paid,” he said.
That would be a crime against not only what happened to the families, but everybody in B.C. who believes in the safety rights of workers, Sinclair said.
Last May, the companies, A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and H.V. Truong Ltd., along with three directors and supervisors, pleaded guilty to violating the Workers’ Compensation Act and health and safety regulations.
The maximum penalty for the offences is a $603,000 fine and six months in jail.
Ut Tran, Jimmy Chan and Han Pham died on Sept. 5, 2008, after being overcome by toxic gas from composting inside a barn on the farm at 23751 16th Ave.
Their coworkers, Michael Phan and Thang Tchen, suffered irreversible brain damage after breathing in the deadly gas.
Phan, 39, has been in a vegetative state since he rushed into the barn on the property to try to save his coworkers.
A total of 29 charges were laid last year after a 20-month investigation by WorkSafeBC into what went wrong at the mushroom composting facility at 23751 16th Avenue in Langley.
When the hearing continues the defence is expected to ask for a fine to be imposed and no jail time.
The charges were brought under the Workers’ Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.
The mushroom composting operation was shut down after the accident, but the mushroom farm still is operating.
In addition to companies A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and H.V. Truong Ltd., charges were laid against two brothers involved in H.V. Truong Ltd. — Ha Quan Truong and Van Thi Truong — as well as A-1 owner and supervisor Thinh Huu Doan.
Ha Quan Truong, Van Thi Truong and Thinh Huu Doan pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including failing to provide proper training and failing to eliminate a safety hazard.
Charges against Ha Quam Truong’s son, Vy Tri Truong, were stayed because of insufficient evidence.
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