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Kelowna marks National Day of Mourning

Kelowna  blues man Sherman Doucette shakes the hand of Nick Perry, a young man injured working one of first jobs, at the National Day of Mourning memorial for workers killed and injured on the job. Doucette nearly died in a sawmill explosion in his early 20s. - Jennifer Smith
Kelowna blues man Sherman Doucette shakes the hand of Nick Perry, a young man injured working one of first jobs, at the National Day of Mourning memorial for workers killed and injured on the job. Doucette nearly died in a sawmill explosion in his early 20s.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Local blues man Sherman Doucette can boast 700 harmonicas in his personal collection and a career playing with legends like John Lee Hooker and Jim Byrnes on the Vancouver music scene.

Yet it was a workplace accident that really earned him his stripes in the genre.

“All the pain I went through was nothing compared to the pain I put my mother through and how I watched her age in front of my eyes,” he told a crowd of 50 gathered for the National Day of Mourning memorial held at Ben Lee Park in Kelowna on Monday.

The event is put on by the WorkSafeBC, the Business Council of British Columbia and the BC Federation of Labour to draw attention to the importance of workplace safety.

In 2013, some 128 workers died on the job in this province—22 in motor vehicle accidents, 39 from traumatic injuries and 67 due to occupational diseases.

Six of those workers were under 25-years-old, just as Doucette was in 1977 when he flicked a switch in the lumber mill where he bundled, wrapped and painted the ends of lumber, and the building blew up.

Mill explosions have cost so many lives in in B.C. in recent years, WorkSafeBC and the United Steelworkers funded a study into sawdust and moisture levels—the first of its kind—investigating the root of the problem and spurring calls for change.

Fallout from the coroner’s inquests in these cases, and subsequent investigations, generated some heat at  Monday’s ceremony.

“Negligent corporations that kill workers face little public or legal scrutiny,” said Andy Pritchard, president of the North Okanagan Labour Council, who opened the event.

“While police routinely investigate and lay charges related to homicides, different rules seem to apply to the workplace fatalities…Nearly two years after the Burns Lake explosion—we all remember that, two people lost their lives—it was announced that neither criminal charges, nor charges under the provincial Workers’ Compensation (Board of BC) will be filed.”

Pritchard used the event to call for more “thorough scrutiny of potential criminal liability” on the part of employers.

“Governments have a responsibility to properly enforce health and safety laws and the criminal code, yet the same politicians who claim to be tough on crime are soft on corporations,” he said.

A Vancouver Islander who travels the country giving a face to this call to action, Nick Perry said the injury he received working one of his first jobs might very well have been prevented if he had known his rights and been given proper safety training.

“When I got my job at this plywood store in Victoria through a reference from my uncle, the only other experience I had was working at a Subway sandwich shop,” he said. “…I was given very little training, no supervision, never had any safety meetings in the six months that lead up to that fateful day.”

And yet, he routinely used heavy-duty machinery, like the forklift he mismanaged, to cause his injury.

Perry’s back was broken by falling fibreboard, leaving him with two rods, six screws and caging around his spine. He had a titanium plate placed in one of his vertebrae and a piece of his rib was removed, mashed into a pasted and used to fix the fractures about and below the plate.

“The doctors told me that due to the significance of the damage, I would likely never walk again,” he said.

He is one of the lucky ones. While the injury dramatically altered the course of his life, he survived, relearned how to walk and now speaks to youth taking workplace safety seriously.

“I want the next generation to know they have the right to stand up against unsafe work,” he said.

The older he gets the more the gravity of his situation sets in as he listens to the stories at these ceremonies.

Lynne Rozenboom provided the reality check this year. She was widowed at 46 years old when her husband, Dirk, was killed in a helicopter accident.

A power-line technician, who came into the field late in life, he considered safety such a focus, he regularly dragged her to work sites on days off to ensure a thorough check was done before starting the week.

“All linemen and women know, in their line of work, their lives depend on each other. There is no room for error; there is no room for mistakes,” she said.

At approximately 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, despite his attention to detail, the engine failed in a helicopter he was travelling in to check lines from the air.

“There is not a day that goes by that Dirk is not in our hearts and in our memories and on our lips,” she said.

Cautioning those gathered that it only takes a moment of inattention and one poor decision to lose a life, she issued a call to action.

“On this day, and every day, don’t just remember those who have been lost to us; please remember that you can do something about that,” she said.

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