The British Columbia Federation of Labour is calling for a ban on 15-passenger vans that are often used to transport farm workers.
The request comes after a WorkSafeBC investigation suggested a wide range of safety violations contributed to a deadly van crash in Abbotsford, B.C., in March 2007 that killed three farm workers and injured 14 others.
The van carrying 17 people rolled over on Highway 1 near Sumas in B.C.’s Fraser Valley.
Passenger overloading, poor tire maintenance, the lack of seatbelts, inadequate driver qualification, road conditions and vehicle instability all played a role in the accident, WorkSafeBC said in a report released Thursday.
The contents of the report is proof that the safety of farm workers is being ignored, said B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair.
“They are they are riding to work in death traps,” he said.
B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon reacted by promising a safety crackdown when the farming season gets underway this spring.
“Our vehicle inspectors will be out there targeting this sector again,” he said.
WorkSafeBC said the van, owned by RHA Enterprises, had numerous problems.
The report found there were only two seatbelts in the van, and some of the passengers were ejected when the vehicle flipped onto the median. It also found the 15-passenger van was carrying 17 people at the time of the crash.
“The driver of the van held a B.C. Class 5 driver’s licence; however the Motor Vehicle Act requires a commercial Class 4 licence to operate a commercial vehicle transporting more than 10, but fewer than 25 workers,” said the report.
The report said the following factors contributed to the loss of vehicle control:
- “Poor visibility and the wet road and may have caused the driver … to steer into the shoulder of the highway.”
- “Improperly inflated tires, with poor tread on the front tires may have permitted the passenger van to hydroplane on the wet road.”
- “The driver of the passenger van lacked adequate knowledge and training to safely operate a 15-passenger vehicle in adverse conditions.”
- “The risk of rollover for 15-passenger van increases when there are more than 10 occupants because the centre of gravity shifts towards the rear of the van.”
Roberta Ellis, the vice-president of the policy, investigations and review division of WorkSafeBC, said they are considering a penalty against the labour contractor who employed and transported the workers to farms in the Fraser Valley.
“The law allows for an administrative penalty of up to half-a-million dollars and so that’s the next stage for us. Orders are issued to the employer, the employer is advised the officer is recommending a penalty,” said Ellis.
The employer now has 70 days to file an appeal, said Ellis.
The report has also been submitted to the B.C. coroner’s office, which is expected to conduct its own inquest later this year. The case would then be turned over to police and the Crown to conduct their own investigation, which could result in criminal charges.
Van was carrying farm workers
The 15-passenger van owned by RHA Enterprises Ltd was carrying 16 farm workers plus the driver when it crashed on Highway 1 in Abbotsford during the early hours of March 7, 2007. The workers were heading east on Highway 1 toward Chilliwack.
“The vehicle collided with two transport trucks, rolled and landed on its roof on the highway median. It was raining heavily at the time, visibility was poor, and the roads were very wet,” said the report.
Amarjit Kaur Bal, Sarabjit Kaur Sidhu and Sukhwinder Kaur Punia all died. The 14 others in the van were injured, some of them seriously.
Most of the victims, whose ages ranged from the teens to over 50, were Indo-Canadian immigrants employed by the labour contractor on a casual basis to work on various Fraser Valley farms.
The crash prompted the provincial government to resume random safety checks of vehicles carrying farm workers.
In 2001, the then newly elected Liberal government cancelled a program that routinely inspected the vans.
At least seven people have died and at least 34 have been injured in accidents involving the transportation of farm workers in B.C. since that time.