Irving Shipyard. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The Herald’s shipping columnist Peter Ziobrowski writes movingly this morning of a workplace fatality at Irving Shipyard last week. Forty-year-old Trevor O’Neil died three days after he was struck on the head by the lid from a pressurized cylinder that came off the sandblasting equipment O’Neil was using. He fell several feet to the ground after being struck.

That information is contained in an online post by Unifor, Local 1 establishing a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Trevor’s mother, Joan. More than sixteen thousand dollars has been donated.  Unifor is the union that represents many of the 1,500 employees at the Irving shipyard. Officially,  a week after the fall, there is little more information about what happened other than to note O’Neil was employed by MacKinnon & Olding, a painting sub-contractor at the shipyard, 50% owned by  Newfoundland’s Crosbie Group.  A “stop work” order is still in effect for the sandblasting unit.

Questions to the Halifax Regional Police, which were called to the scene of the accident, were referred to the Department of Labour, which is the lead investigator on the workplace fatality. The shipyard is doing its own investigation. Department of Labour spokesperson Shannon Kerr says no information about the circumstances of how O’Neil met his tragic death can be shared publicly until the investigation by occupational health and safety officers is complete. That could take many months. Meanwhile, the shroud of secrecy around the circumstances of O’Neil’s death — in fact, all workplace fatalities in the province — raises other safety concerns, as noted by Ziobrowski.

Ziobrowski writes he was shaken up and troubled after witnessing a fatal accident in March. Twenty-eight-year-old Skylar Blackie died after a pressurized cylinder in a fire extinguisher failed during a training exercise at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School. That accident is still being investigated  and the Department of Labour says no information will be released until the investigation is complete. It may be possible to obtain some details through a Freedom of Information request but a response will take at least another month and two or three months is more probable.

So it’s worth asking whether O’Neil’s death might have been prevented had some basic facts around Blackie’s death been made public to raise awareness around the importance of inspecting and maintaining pressurized equipment. Is there any reason to keep all information surrounding workplace deaths a secret?

This was the first workplace fatality at Irving Shipbuilding since it began building ships for the Navy five years ago. But there were 40 workplace fatalities across Nova Scotia in 2018. Contrast that number with the two people the Department of Labour employs to investigate fatal accidents (the department is recruiting two more.). No wonder it is often a year after someone dies before the public finds out how it happened (generally after the event is forgotten) and if it might have been prevented. It’s clear the Department of Labour needs to increase staffing and be more open with the public in this regard. And more needs to happen to reduce the 5,819 workplace accidents last year.

A celebration of Trevor O’Neil’s life will take place at the Beaverbank Community Centre in Sackville on Thursday afternoon.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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