A Halifax woman feels like she was forced to investigate her brother’s workplace death herself after the provincial department responsible “botched” the case.
Andrew Gnazdowsky died at Nova Scotia Power’s Marshall Falls reservoir in Sheet Harbour in October 2020. An engineer, Gnazdowsky was on the site working for a New Brunswick company that was subcontracted to survey under water near a dam.
A piece of the company’s equipment malfunctioned, so he swam out into the water to fix it. What happened next, Nicole Gnazdowsky, Andrew’s sister, isn’t quite sure.
“I feel like I have a sense, a good sense of what happened. But I think there’s still probably some holes in the story, and whether those will ever get filled I don’t know,” Gnazdowsky told the Halifax Examiner.
Andrew drowned. His body wasn’t retrieved until the next day.
Since then, Gnazdowsky has fought for answers, digging into the case herself, and shaping a Department of Labour investigation she’s revealed to be incredibly flawed.
‘An energy like I’d never met before’
Andrew was Gnazdowsky’s 26-year-old younger brother, and her best friend.
“We did everything together,” she said. “He was an energy like I’d never met before. Like the guy who enters a room and can make everyone feel better … He’s got the kind of energy where he goes to a dog park and all the dogs swarm him because dogs know energy even better than people and his was just so incredible.”
On Oct. 16, 2020, she got a phone call.
“All I knew from the phone call I got was that something had happened to my brother and that he was missing, and that he’d been working near water,” Gnazdowsky said.
As she got ready to head to Sheet Harbour to search for Andrew, Gnazdowsky managed to get ahold of one of his coworkers.
“I asked if we should have hope and he said, ‘It doesn’t really sound like it. I would like to, but it doesn’t sound like it.’ So I knew that things weren’t good.”
The information she gleaned from coworkers was pretty much all the family got until months later.
The family buried Andrew at the end of October, and heard nothing more about the case.
“It was just like, the expectation was to go to a site, do an identification and then drive home and plan a funeral, and nobody ever bothers to tell you why, or how you ended up in that position,” Gnazdowsky said.
“There’s no information available, or person available to help you navigate what you’re about to face — and not even navigate what you’re about to face, but to give you any information about anything.”
The family contacted the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, which informed them that the provincial Department of Labour and Advanced Education was the body investigating the death.
A ‘shocking’ conflict
They eventually got in contact with the Occupational Health and Safety investigator on the case, Courtney Donovan.
“She basically told us that she had two years to do her investigation and that at the end of the two years we could find out any of the information around any charges that come out of it, and that if we wanted any other information we could file a Freedom of Information request,” Gnazdowsky said.
Donovan wouldn’t provide any information, refusing to answer questions about Andrew’s injuries or where the investigation was leading.
The family heard from Donovan again in early January, telling them the investigation was close to finished, with a final report due in late February.
After asking for an update at the end of February, they were told Donovan wasn’t finished the investigation and she was pulled into investigating another file. Donovan said she’d have a better sense of where the investigation stood by the end of March.
Frustrated with the pace of the investigation, Gnazdowsky began searching for information on her own.
She discovered a clear conflict for the investigator, given Andrew died working on a Nova Scotia Power site: Donovan used to work for Emera, Nova Scotia Power’s parent company.
“You just ended up so confused about what is going on and what happened so I mean, you just start Googling anything or everything just trying to find some answers to anything and I looked up Courtney on LinkedIn and she was a former employee of Emera,” Gnazdowsky said.
“To know that that’s who was in charge of the investigation was just shocking.”
Donovan’s LinkedIn has since been scrubbed of any mention of Emera or even her role as an investigator for the Department of Labour.
After contacting her MLA, then newly sworn-in Premier Iain Rankin for help, she got a call from Scott Burbridge, Donovan’s boss and the manager of investigations. That call left her with the impression “that they’d done a botched job.”
Burbridge conceded there may be the perception of a conflict of interest in having Donovan investigate Nova Scotia Power, though he also said he thought it could be an advantage. He eventually assigned a different lead investigator on the file, and later told Gnazdowsky that Donovan wouldn’t conduct any further investigations on Nova Scotia Power cases. Asked by the Examiner whether Donovan still works as an investigator, the department didn’t answer.
But the concerns didn’t end with Donovan’s work history.
One point that stuck out for Gnazdowsky was that Burbridge was unaware of significant injuries to her brother’s face.
When the family arrived at the funeral home after Andrew’s death, there was bruising on his face so bad it couldn’t be properly covered with make-up. It’s something that’s hard to forget for Gnazdowsky, but she also confirmed her memory was correct with the funeral home director.
Gnazdowsky believes that information to be pertinent to the investigation because she doesn’t know how Andrew, a strong swimmer, ended up underwater. Could the bruising have been caused by the malfunctioning equipment hitting him in the face, knocking him unconscious?
The equipment, a remote-controlled boat, was large enough to cause that kind of damage, Gnazdowsky believes.
Burbridge was unaware of any bruising, so Gnazdowsky asked for a copy of the autopsy. The autopsy didn’t note the injuries she saw.
“It was like a pretty heavy moment to be attending your little brother’s viewing, and then to have that added on top of it made the whole thing even worse,” she said.
“And then, to have the department deny that my worst nightmares that I have seen are true, and the medical examiner’s office have an autopsy report that doesn’t show that they’re true … It was beyond concern.”
Along with the omission, there was an error in the autopsy report. It said Andrew died on Oct. 17, the day he was pulled from the water, not Oct. 16, the day he drowned.
That’s important to the investigation for the other reason Gnazdowsky surmises her brother could’ve gone under water: the dam was closed off on the 17th, but not the 16th.
Reading about another case of a worker dying at a Nova Scotia Power dam, Gnazdowsky learned about the effect known to divers as Delta P — differential pressure. Luke Seabrook, a 39-year-old man from Dartmouth, died at a Nova Scotia Power dam in Annapolis Royal in 2015. A gate in the dam was left open and it sucked Seabrook in.
Gnazdowsky believes something similar could’ve happened in her brother’s case, but she still doesn’t know.
Following “a rather unpleasant conversation” with the medical examiner’s office, Gnazdowsky convinced them to amend the autopsy report, fixing the issues, within 24 hours of her addressing them.
Gnazdowsky also dug up reports on Nova Scotia Power’s own safety protocols, like its Contractor Safety Program, which categorizes “Working on (or) under water” including “Diving, utilizing watercraft” as “high risk,” requiring a safety plan. She presented those findings to Burbridge too.
Asked a series of questions about the case — around whether safety protocols were followed, the findings of Nova Scotia Power’s own investigation, and the rigour of Department of Labour’s investigation — Nova Scotia Power spokesperson Jacqueline Foster provided the following statement:
There’s nothing more important to us than the safety of our employees, contractors and customers. We continue to cooperate with the investigation by the Department of Labour. Given the department is leading this investigation, any questions should be directed to them.
Brunswick Engineering, the subcontractor on the job and Andrew’s employer, declined to comment. GEMTEC, NSP’s direct contractor did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
‘A fish always rots at the head’
“They just weren’t asking the questions. So I did. And then I brought all the answers to them,” Gnazdowsky said of the Department of Labour.
“I think everybody involved should be embarrassed by the job that they’ve done to get to this point. It is not my job to point out the things that I have done. I have done nothing to deserve to be in this position. And this has become my full time job, to stay on top of them and make sure that they’re looking at the right things and that they’re going to find the right answers like, not only for Andrew but to be preventative in the future. It doesn’t sit well with me that they can take all this time to do these investigations and in the meantime there’s nothing done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Burbridge originally told Gnazdowsky they weren’t considering charges against Nova Scotia Power, just its contractors. She’s hopeful that’s now changed. There was a pre-charge meeting between Burbridge and the Crown prosecutor handling workplace investigations scheduled for Thursday, and she’s hopeful those charges will come soon.
Along with the incompetence of the investigation, Gnazdowsky has been put off by the response to her questioning.
Following a short phone call with Premier Rankin, Gnazdowsky had an in-person meeting with the most senior officials in the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.
She met with Christine Penney, a senior executive director in the department, and Duff Montgomerie, the deputy minister of the department, its highest-ranking bureaucrat, last month.
“He came into the room and knew not a single detail about my brother’s case, like didn’t even know the date,” Gnazdowsky said of Montgomerie.
“He sat cross-legged leaned back in his chair, arms crossed with a smirk on his face the entire conversation as I’m pleading for him and his senior officials to do something about the people who work below them who have allowed this investigation to get to the point that it requires me to be involved.”
After the meeting, Gnazdowsky emailed Montgomerie to express her dissatisfaction. He replied with an attached PDF on dealing with the grieving process.
Someone recently told Gnazdowsky an old saying: “A fish always rots at the head.”
“And in that meeting, Duff Montgomerie proved that the Department of Labour is rotten beyond at the head,” she said.
“The bare minimum as a person that you could have provided, Duff, would be some kindness, some compassion, some commitment to fix these issues, but they’re not getting fixed because Duff Montgomerie doesn’t care.”
Department spokesperson Krista Higdon provided the Examiner the following statement:
Workplace fatalities are devastating for the families and communities left behind. It’s hard to find the right words to clearly convey how deeply saddened we are when we hear of the loss of someone’s family member due to a workplace incident.
The Department of Labour and Advanced Education supports the families of employees lost in workplace accidents through these extremely difficult times. Regular updates are available to families to share information with them as we can and guide them to supports they may want. In this case, the division has had regular communication since early on in the investigation, with the family to provide updates on the ongoing investigation as best we can.
The workplace death of Mr. Gnazdowsky is still under investigation. This investigation, like others, is following the current practices of the Occupational Health and Safety Division, similar to other jurisdictions. The results of the investigation will be reviewed by the NS Public Prosecution prior to a final decision about any possible charges being reached.
As reported by the CBC’s Elizabeth McMillan, based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information, not proactively released, 18 people died at work in Nova Scotia last year.
Gnazdowsky hopes for change, and that in the future, families who lose loved ones at work won’t have to conduct their own investigations to get answers.
“It’s like we jumped the queue, like there’s so many people ready and waiting for their answers but they won’t get them … unless you do it yourself,” she said.
“I truly believe like in a lot of cases you could file as many Freedom of Information requests as you want to looking for the answers, and you’ll get a bunch of redacted paper back and maybe it will look like they did something. But the reality is that you’ll never get any information because it doesn’t exist.”
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