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Victims of refinery explosion fear Co-op won’t be held accountable

12/04/2014 06:30 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST
A group of workers who were badly burned in an explosion at Regina’s Consumers Co-operative Refineries Ltd. in 2011 are concerned they won’t be compensated for the toll this has taken on their lives.

Seven people who were working for contractors at the Co-op Refinery on Oct. 6, 2011 have filed a lawsuit arguing the explosion was the result of gross negligence by the refinery and some associated firms. They say, as a result, their health and their lives have been unalterably damaged.

According to Saskatchewan law, this court action isn’t allowed. 

In Saskatchewan, injured workers are only allowed to pursue compensation through the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB). They are not allowed to sue their employer for compensation in court.

A WCB process is underway in which the defendants are arguing to have the lawsuit thrown out. 

Victim’s lawyer admits case is a long shot

The workers' lawyer, Tavengwa Runyowa, said the lawsuit argues that "the refinery was an unsafe work environment. That the people in charge knew that. Certain employees made complaints about it and were basically told you can stay and work under these conditions or you can leave." 

He said in his view this "appears to be grossly negligent and possibly intentional conduct by the employer."

Runyowa admits that on the surface the lawsuit is a long shot because of current law. But he said there is a higher law in this country. 

"What we’re saying is that if there is a situation where one law is allowing something that is patently unfair from a natural justice perspective, or from a constitutional perspective, that law can be defeated," Runyowa said. 

The provincial government confirms that injured workers are not allowed to sue their employer and it defends the current approach as a "no fault" system that allows workers to get guaranteed benefits from their employer without going through a long legal process. 

‘I knew I was on fire’

Irene Rombaut still vividly remembers the day of the explosion. She was working for a scaffolding contractor when suddenly there was a massive explosion and a fireball came hurtling toward her. 

"I knew I was on fire. I knew there was a shower around the corner so my mind was on trying to get this fire out while everybody was yelling at me to run," Rombaut said. 

She tried to stumble away but the pain made that difficult. 

"My chest was hurting. My face was hurting. My neck was hurting. My ears were hurting. I had earplugs in and I was worried my ear plugs were melted into my head."

She was rushed to hospital where, for 11 days, doctors treated the second degree burns on her face, ears, neck, arms and back in the intensive care unit. 

Her daughter, Justine Rombaut, was also working on site as a scaffolder that day and rushed to the hospital to see her mom. 

"I honestly shut down and thought my mom wasn't going to make it through the night because she was on life support," Justine said. 

She says the whole family was dramatically affected that day. 

"I feel like life was stolen from us. I feel like part of us was taken away. Like we lost something big," Justine said.

And they say an independent investigation shows that the whole incident could have and should have been prevented. 

Charges laid against refinery

Based in part on this report, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laid charges against the refinery in July 2013. 

It alleges Co-op Refinery failed to put in place a corrosion monitoring program, failed to maintain equipment in a safe way, and failed to maintain the safety and welfare of workers. 

That matter will be back before the courts in January. 

Irene Rombaut said all of this has led her to believe, "it could have been prevented. None of this needed to happen if people would have done their job."

Her colleague Kim Janvier agrees. 

She was working for the same contractor not far from Rombaut that day and was also hit by a fireball which gave her first, second and third degree burns on her face, neck and hands. 

"I looked at my hands and [saw] that they were all white and waxy and then underneath on my left hand my skin was actually pushed up and there was actually fresh flesh under there," Janvier said. 

She said to this day she has nightmares and has been unable to go back to work at "live plants" where explosions could potentially happen, because of the mental stress. 

Worker says there were warning signs

What makes Janvier most angry is that she raised concerns about the safety of the workplace before the explosion happened. 

Not long after she started the job as a scaffolder, she was told to be very careful around the pipes, which she said "were very rusted and brittle." 

"At one point we were told not to cause a spark or hit them or anything,  because if a bird crapped on there they would break. That’s how brittle they were," Janvier said. "And that came straight from an operator at Co-op."

She said she was also worried because alarms were going off on a regular basis, which meant they had to stop working and go to a muster point.

The statement of claim says that because of the frequent disruptions, some alarms "were disconnected or removed entirely."

Janvier said workers raised concerns at the weekly safety meeting they were told, "if you don’t like it, you can quit."

She knows that this lawsuit is unlikely to succeed but she wants to send a message. 

"My main goal is that somebody gets held accountable for this. And that it just never happens again is my main focus on all this," Janvier said.

The refinery hasn’t filed a statement of defence and none of these allegations have been proven in court. Co-op Refinery has declined to comment because of the ongoing legal action. 

Government defends WCB system

The deputy minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety said he feels badly for the workers but he said the WCB system provides the best protection for workers and employers. 

Mike Carr said in the past employees had to take their employer to court.

"It would be very expensive and it would be highly litigious, so you would find that probably the net beneficiaries are not injured workers but members of the bar," Carr said. 

He said the WCB takes a "no fault" approach to workplace accidents and is in place in every province and territory across the country. 

Carr said it provides "90 per cent of net income for the duration of disability. There will be the provision of a pension asset assuming that there is lifelong impairment as a result of the injury, and there’s active and ongoing access to medical treatment to the injured worker at no cost for the duration of their disability."

For her part, Rombaut is not impressed with her WCB benefits.

"I wouldn’t say it was compensation for what I lost. It was just to replace my wages," Rombaut said. "It doesn’t cover the time I could have had with my kids."

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