Union pursues criminal charges on its own in death of worker

Union wants criminal charges brought under Bill C-45 after company receives record fine for health and safety violations
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 04/16/2010

A British Columbia union has launched a rare legal procedure in its attempt to punish an employer for the death of an employee.

The United Steelworker’s Union has launched a private prosecution in B.C. provincial court in an attempt to get forestry company Weyerhaeuser to face charges of criminal negligence after an accident at a New Westminster, B.C., sawmill caused the death of a worker.

On Nov. 17, 2004, Lyle Hewer, a sawmill worker, was killed after falling into a machine that converts wood waste to chips while trying to clear it out. An investigation found Hewer knew the situation was dangerous but his supervisor asked him to clear it out anyway. Worksafe BC determined nobody at the mill did anything to make things safer until after the accident.

In March 2007, WorksafeBC fined Weyerhaeuser $297,000 for health and safety violations that contributed to Hewer’s death, the highest fine it has ever imposed against an employer. The organization found Weyerhaeuser had a high level of knowledge of the hazard but didn’t act to eliminate it, which was reckless and wilfully disregarded employee safety. Police also recommended to Crown prosecutors Wyerhaeuser be charged under the Bill C-45 amendments to the Criminal Code, which impose criminal penalties on corporations that fail to protect the health and safety of their employees and the public. However, B.C. prosecutors declined to pursue a criminal case.

The steelworkers union didn’t agree and felt Weyerhaeuser was criminally negligent and deserving of charges under the amendments. It launched its own private criminal prosecution proceeding against the company, urging the province to re-open the case.

Though Weyerhaeuser received a hefty fine for its safety violations, the union felt Hewer’s death was the result of a criminal act and the company should be criminally charged. It’s the first time a private prosecution has been brought against an employer under the Bill C-45 amendments.

The B.C. criminal justice branch has a policy that doesn’t allow private prosecutions to proceed. If it decides one has merit, it will take over the prosecution itself.

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