A truck driver fired from a construction job has risked going to jail for contempt of court by protesting in front of the Red Deer provincial building.
Late in August, Darren Hunter, 47, donned a hard hat, safety vest and work boots, then posted hand-drawn signs on the cement patio at the southeast corner of the building.
The signs decried allegations of inaction at Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, naming one of the technical advisers employed in the Red Deer office. Ordered off the property, Hunter moved himself and his signs to the sidewalk along 51st Street and continued his protest.
He contends that Alberta’s major construction companies are getting away with safety infractions without suffering sanctions from the province’s labour watchdog, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), while workers are at risk if they report infractions to provincial authorities.
“Right now, Alberta is the most dangerous place to work in Canada,” said Hunter.
“We have the highest (rate of) death and injury in Canada. Our safety has been compared to places like Pakistan and India — Third World countries. If you read the Parkland (Institute) report that just came out two weeks ago … OHS is a complete, abject failure. They are doing absolutely nothing.”
Athabasca University professor Bob Barnetson, co-author of the report released in April, upholds Hunter’s concerns about Alberta’s track record in workplace safety.
“If policy-makers are serious about meaningfully addressing the unacceptably high toll of workplace injuries, the first step is to take greater responsibility for ensuring the public understands the reality of how, where, and why workers are being injured and killed at work,” says Barnetson in an outline of the report, published on the Parkland Institute’s website.
Data describing occupational injuries and fatalities in Alberta are published on the Labour ministry’s website. The 2015 report states that the number of work-related fatalities that year had decreased by 26 per cent from 2014, when 169 deaths were reported. About one third (33.6 per cent) of those deaths involved workers in construction and related trades.
By June 30 of this year, 19 Albertans had died on the job, up from nine for the same period in 2015 and not including seven who eventually died from job-related illnesses or injuries suffered previously.
Hunter said his troubles started a few years ago, when he was encouraged to report infractions to an OHS officer in Red Deer. He alleges that the adviser promised not to reveal his identity, but that it was released after OHS investigators attended the site.
His report to OHS included complaints about a gas leak, which the company responsible was ordered to fix.
Hunter was subsequently sued by his employer, which had been providing services to the builder.
Hunter would not say where he lives, but said he has lost his job, gone bankrupt, and faces criminal charges if he speaks up about the lawsuit.
“This just needs to be exposed. People’s lives are in danger everyday. I trusted (OHS), now I’m being sued,” he said.
The Advocate has confirmed that a lawsuit naming Hunter and a numbered Alberta company as defendants was filed with the Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench early in 2013. Documents that are part of the action against Hunter include a series of judge’s orders prohibiting him from attending or photographing specified job sites and from distributing or instructing others to distribute literature associated with his complaints. He was also directed to stop picketing, protesting or harassing the people and companies involved and to take down web sites associated with his complaints against them.
Hunter said he is aware of what he calls a “gag order,” and is willing to risk criminal charges and jail time to draw attention to his allegations.
Andrew Hanon, communications director for Alberta Labour, said he is familiar with the lawsuit and the orders it contains, but that the province is not directly involved in the litigation. He said the province cannot comment on the lawsuit because it is still before the courts.
Mark Jette, president of the Calgary-area company that had employed Hunter, said he is also unable to provide details because court decisions are still pending, including a contempt of court hearing scheduled in January.
Jette confirmed that Hunter had worked for him for about two weeks.
Outside the Red Deer provincial building, during his one-man demonstration, Hunter said he is now duking it out on his own because he can no longer afford to pay his lawyer.
“He said, ‘The only thing you can do now is to expose this to the public.’ I want the public to realize how dangerous it is to report an unsafe work site.”