A major Canadian food workers’ union wants to see an inquiry into the deaths of three workers Friday in an apparent toxic gas release at a Langley, B.C. mushroom farm.
“The (workers’) families, the public, and all agriculture workers need to know what led to this tragedy and how to prevent it from ever happening again,” said Wayne Hanley, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada, in a release Sunday.
“This demands a full public inquiry to be followed up by action and not just apologies.”
RCMP at Langley, east of Vancouver, said late Friday that their preliminary investigation showed a group of employees at Farmers’ Fresh Mushrooms entered a pumphouse at the rear of the property on Friday afternoon.
“Once (the workers were) inside, someone accidentally or intentionally released toxic gases that are imminently dangerous to life and health,” RCMP said.
“The workers were overcome by the toxic gas and it appears other workers may have come to their aid and were also overcome. Preliminary evidence suggests the workers succumbed to an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.”
Three of the employees died and three others were hospitalized, RCMP said. One of the dead men was identified Saturday as 35-year-old Ut Tran of Surrey, RCMP said.
Michael Phan, 35, of Langley was also identified Saturday afternoon by RCMP as one of the workers in critical condition in hospital. The names of the other dead and injured haven’t been released.
RCMP, Worksafe B.C. and the B.C. Coroner’s Office are investigating to figure out how exactly the incident occurred, but RCMP said Friday that the incident “does not appear to be criminal in nature.”
UFCW, working with the Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA), runs agriculture worker support and counseling centres, including one in nearby Abbotsford, and said in a release Sunday that farm workers who visit those centres “regularly report dangerous working and living conditions.”
Stan Raper, who runs the program for AWA, said in UFCW’s release that some of those workers report “having to handle chemicals and compounds they know nothing about, packaged in containers they can’t read.”
However, he said, “they are also afraid to complain because many of them are temporary or migrant workers” and fear being fired or forced to return to their home countries.
None of the farms in question were named in the union’s press release .
UFCW’s Hanley said Canada sees an average of about 115 agricultural workplace-related fatalities per year, and some of those killed or injured “are brought to this country to do this dangerous work by government programs that may fail to protect the workers adequately.”
Farmers’ Fresh Mushrooms has been operating since 1999, supplying fresh mushrooms as far east as Manitoba and as far south as California, with over $20 million in sales per year, the company says on its website.
The company’s site says it is “owned entirely by its growers in the Fraser Valley region,” including operations at Langley, Abbotsford and Aldergrove.