Bad mushrooms

The province’s chief coroner has ordered a public inquest into how three employees of a Langley mushroom farm died in 2008, after inhaling noxious fumes, in the hopes that a broader examination of the incident can prevent similar deaths from occurring.

The decision, made by Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, was announced in a B.C. Coroners Service press release Tuesday. The inquest is scheduled for May 7, 2012, and cannot make findings of fault or legal responsibility, but will make recommendations on the evidence presented.

A spokeswoman for the B.C. Coroners Service said that although inquests can be difficult for the bereaved families and friends involved, they can ultimately be beneficial for them.

“Families often come in quite angry wanting to fault-find, but actually find that they get more closure than a more adversarial process, which tends to stir everything up,” coroner Barbara McLintock said.

A November report from WorkSafeBC concluded the incident at the farm, which left another two workers with irreversible brain damage, was the culmination of years of neglected worker safety and inherent design flaws. The five employees had entered a pump shed on Sept. 5, 2008, where toxic gas had accumulated.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said he had mixed feelings about the inquest announcement.

“The families were looking for justice in the courts and they didn’t get it,” he said. “There will be no justice at this inquest but there may at least be a legacy.”

The B.C. Supreme Court issued fines totalling $350,000 after two companies and three individuals pleaded guilty to 10 of 29 charges laid against them. The three named in the case all avoided jail time.

“Hopefully there will be recommendations that we will then have to go and fight for so that this doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Sinclair said.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix also welcomed the announcement.

“It’s going to be very hard for the families to hear the details of this case, but they feel that it’s only through the seeking of truth that we can get things changed,” he said.

A jury will hear evidence from subpoenaed witnesses to determine the facts surrounding these deaths.

The recommendations of the jury will be forwarded to the relevant government departments by the chief coroner. Typically, the departments respond to such recommendations within 90 days.

“These recommendations need to increase the attention for farm workers who are clearly some of the lowest paid, hardest working people in British Columbia and who are second class citizens in many respects,” Mr. Sinclair said.