A large 2014 WorkSafe BC fine didn’t mark the end of dangerous working conditions at three Bradner farm operations owned by the same man, according to documents obtained by The News.
Two of the farms, located along a short stretch of 58th Avenue, were in the news earlier this year after it was discovered run-off from the sites was polluting a local creek. The city has levied 15 separate fines totaling $7,600 against the two operations and a stop-work order remains in place.
The two operations, along with a third located nearby and owned by the same person, have been reprimanded by WorkSafe BC four times over the past year and a half for safety issues that put workers at a “high risk” of serious injury or death, The News has found. Three times workers have fallen from heights, resulting in at least two injuries, according to documents obtained from WorkSafe BC.
Avina Fresh Produce was fined $45,100 in November of 2014 for “allowing workers to use platforms without guardrails” and for failing to repair and inspect its platforms months after being told to do so by WorkSafe BC.
H.Q. Mushroom Farm, located across the street and owned and operated by the same man, was handed a $8,380 fine for also having unsafe platforms soon after.
But just six months later, an Avina worker fell from height in an incident an inspector found “presented a high risk of serious injury,” according to documents obtained by The News under a freedom of information request. The fall, which was blamed on an inadequately guarded winch, and a worker standing on the deck of a compost loader, was the first of three within an 11-month span at Avina and H.Q.
On Nov. 23, 2015, another worker fell, this time at H.Q. Mushroom Farm. According to one of dozens of inspection reports obtained by The News, an inspector found the “mushroom picking platform [had] partially derailed,” causing a worker to fall through a guard rail and strike his or her head and wrist on the floor.
The company was ordered to stop using its platform system until an engineer deemed it safe and to develop first aid procedures to transport injured workers.
Less than three months after that fall, on Feb. 12, 2016, another platform at the same farm failed. An inspection report noted that the top rail of the platform wasn’t adequately secured to the mushroom beds support structure, resulting in an unspecified injury to a worker.
The farm was told to stop using equipment in the room in question until an engineer had assessed the structural integrity of the various mushroom beds and platforms.
Those falls came two years after WorkSafe BC led a provincewide drive to reduce fatalities, specifically targeting falls from heights. The 2013 initiative came following three incidents in the industry over the space of several months. Twice, workers “fell from height” due to the picking ladder system detaching from the railing system while on another occasion cable damage or wear was to blame.
In an inspection following that initiative, in July of 2013, Avina was cited for its unsafe platforms and warned that it could impose a penalty, if it desired. A fine wasn’t immediately issued, although that isn’t unusual; WorkSafe inspectors often find issues that, if remedied, don’t result in fines.
But in May of 2014, an inspector found nine workers on ladder picking systems without guard rails and higher than four feet off the ground. While the workers have been trained how to use guard rails, an inspector found there was no enforcement and the boxes being picked make it difficult to use the guards while working. The incident contributed to the bulk of a $45,100 fine levied that autumn.
Falls aren’t WorkSafe BC’s only major concern when it comes to mushroom farms, however. In 2008, three workers died and two more were left with severe brain injuries after entering a shed where hydrogen sulfide (H2S) had built up at a Langley mushroom operation. A coroner’s inquest followed and farms have been asked to create “exposure control plans” in order to prevent a similar tragedy.
In April, Delfresh Mushroom Farm – a composting facility just down the road from Avina Fresh Produce and H.Q. Mushroom Farm and under construction by the same owner – was ordered to stop work immediately due to the presence of H2S.
According to city records, the owner stated that “he produces 12 million pounds of mushrooms a year at his growing facilities across the street” and “makes 800 tons of compost a week at this facility.”
The city called WorkSafe BC, which sent three officers to the site, where they twice recorded levels of H2S exceeding the allowed limit. A subsequent order said the employer hadn’t done enough to prevent worker exposure to H2S, and didn’t have any H2s monitors or procedures in place.
According to a report, H2S had been allowed to accumulate “in stagnant brown water in air lock pits.” Contractors employed at the farm had “opened the air lock pits, releasing H2S in the Phase 1 building where workers were working,” while trying to troubleshoot a problem.
The Delfresh stop work order has remained in place at the Phase 1 building and brown water storage tanks. To start work, Delfresh must develop an “exposure control plan” and procedures that lays out all H2S hazards. Four months later, the order has yet to be lifted. A plan submitted in June requires corrections that have not yet been submitted, and engineering documents are missing identification of access points.
WorkSafe BC would not comment on whether any future fines or penalties are being considered. The News tried repeatedly to reach the farms’ owner, Huu Quach, but was not successful as of press time.
The City of Abbotsford has levied a total of 15 fines against Delfresh and H.Q. Mushroom Farm totalling $7,600. The fines include two tickets for failing to obtain a building permit, five tickets for failing to comply with a stop work order, five tickets for failing to cease occupancy and eight tickets for fouling/obstructing a watercourse. The city usually focuses on bringing properties “into compliance,” and usually issues fines when other means have failed.
The compost operation also breached rules that only permit such operations when mushrooms were also being grown on site. The federal and provincial environment ministries have also been contacted regarding the farms.
According to the province, test results showed water discharge from the site exceeded provincial guidelines for fecal coliform, ammonia, nitrogen and E.coli. Downstream effects of pollution have not yet been seen, a spokesperson said in an email, but the full impact won’t be known until analytical results are submitted in the future. The farms are up to date on an order to hire a qualified professional to “remediate the contaminated areas and develop water quality monitoring plans.”
It wasn’t the first time Quach’s farms had fallen afoul of rules protecting waterways. In 2008, the provincial court ordered H.Q. to pay a $10,000 fine for several federal fisheries offences. Avina Fresh Produce, meanwhile, was fined $5,000.
The two companies were ordered to pay $75,000 to the government “for the purpose of promoting the conservation and protection of fish and fish habitat within the Nathan Creek watershed,” according to a news release issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.