05/07/2012 02:21 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Mushroom farm deaths preventable, inquest told

Three men who died at a Fraser Valley mushroom farm after being overcome in a shed by a mix of toxic gases, despite repeated warnings from workplace safety authorities, didn't have to die, a coroner's inquest has been told.

Coroner's lawyer Chris Godwin said in his opening statement at the inquiry that the deaths and injuries to three other men might have been averted if the workers had known the risk and the company had put the proper safety procedures in place.

"Mr. Coroner, this was a tragedy that perhaps could have been prevented," Godwin said.

Ut Tran, 35, Han Pham, 47, and Chi Wai Chan, 55, all died within moments of entering a pump shed where toxic gas had accumulated in September 2008. Two other workers survived but suffered permanent, severe brain damage in the incident.

Jurors heard one man went into a shed that day in September 2008 and was overcome by a mix of toxic gases. The others followed to try to help him.

What followed was chaos made more difficult by the fact that the workers spoke only Vietnamese and the rescuers only English.

'We were helpless'

Paramedic Vincent Ford was the first on the scene of what he thought was a drowning. Instead, he had to declare the area hazardous and said he spent his time until firefighters arrived trying to keep the farm's remaining staff from trying to enter the shed to conduct a rescue themselves.

"They were pretty perturbed at us for not going into the shed," he said.

Ford's partner that day, Matthew Nasseri, told the inquest he and Ford couldn't explain their decision not to go in because of the language barrier.

"I think it will stay for us for the rest of our lives," he said. "We were helpless. We couldn't do anything."

Twenty-five witnesses are expected to testify over the seven days of hearings in Burnaby, which are intended to take a broader look at the incident in an attempt to prevent similar deaths in the future.

'Huge challenges'

An inquest jury may not, by law, make any findings of fault or legal responsibility but it will have the opportunity to make recommendations related to the evidence presented.

Tracey Phan, whose father was one of the men injured in the incident, hopes the inquest will recommend changes.

"Many farm workers, they don't really understand English and aren't fluent in it and most of the instruction booklets that are handed out during work, they're all in English, there's nothing written in Vietnamese or Chinese or Punjabi," she said.

"So nobody really understands it, and people are pretty ignorant as to what risks they are putting themselves in when they go to work."

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, is also calling for recommendations to improve current safety standards on local farms.

"Most of the farm workers are immigrant workers or they're temporary foreign workers in British Columbia today," he said.

"They have huge challenges — there's no training, they're vulnerable, they're taken advantage of, they feel they don't have the same rights other people do ... so it poses a huge hurdle in order for those people to act and be safe."

Three operators of A-1 Mushroom Substratum were fined $350,000 after pleading guilty to 10 of 29 charges linked to the death of three workers.