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No sense of closure for Rochette family and Justin Stewart

Vale fined $1 million for April 2014 smelter incident that killed Rochette and injured Stewart 
Justin Stewart stands outside the Sudbury Courthouse as he shows a photo of himself in hospital after the April 2014 incident at the Copper Cliff Smelter that injured him and killed 36-year-old Paul Rochette. Photo by Jonathan Migneault.

The family of a millwright killed at the Copper Cliff Smelter in April 2014, and his co-worker who was injured in the same incident, said they have no sense of closure after Vale Canada Ltd. pleaded guilty to four of the nine Occupational Health and Safety Act charges it faced from the Ministry of Labour, and was fined $1 million.

On April 6, 2014, Paul Rochette, 36, was killed when he was struck in the head by a pin that broke off a crusher and was released like a bullet under pressure. 

Justin Stewart, then a 28-year-old millwright, received a concussion and facial lacerations in the same incident.

“It's been over two and a half years since the accident, and the loss of Paul has not gotten any easier,” said Rochette's sister, Angèle Kirwan, who gave an emotional victim impact statement during the court proceeding Monday afternoon. “I wait for the day it gets better. Sure, I have distractions, but the minute I have some alone time Paul is the only one I think about.”

Kirwan said her brother's death was preventable, and has changed her family's life for the worse.

Rochette left behind two children, his eight-year-old daughter Isabella, and his son Skyler, who was three at the time of his death.

“At funeral he (Skyler) told us he was going to go up to the sky and bring his dad back down,” Kirwan said. “He's had mixed emotions. He misses his dad but is angry at him for leaving. A year after his death he told us he wants to work for Vale in the same job his as his dad so he can get into an accident and see his dad again.”

Stewart said no one cared what he had to say after the incident that left him with titanium plates in his head, plastic surgery to keep his eye from drooping, fractured his jaw and broke his nose. 

During the court proceeding Monday Stewart had to retract part of his victim impact statement because the judge and counsel deemed some parts were not in keeping with the spirit of the law, and the purpose of a victim impact statement under the Criminal Code of Canada.

He told media he later returned to work for Vale as a millwright – six months after the incident – but didn't last long. 

“I quit. I couldn't work for this company anymore,” Stewart said.

After Rochette's death Vale and the United Steelworkers conducted a joint investigation and made 58 recommendations to improve safety at the Copper Cliff Smelter.

Those recommendations included creating a policy on how to repair a crusher if it stalled – which didn't exist prior – along with rules restricting access to the crusher platform, and a system to prevent foreign materials from falling on the conveyor belt, which leads to the crusher.

While Stewart commended the United Steelworkers for pushing for the joint investigation, he told media Vale still weren't following some basic safety procedures at the smelter when he returned.

Because his compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board covered only 54 per cent of his gross income previously, he ended up applying for jobs elsewhere, and found work as a millwright in southern Ontario. 

Among the guilty pleas it entered, Vale admitted that it failed to ensure workers knew how to properly remove a broken piece from a ferrochrome crusher. It was that broken piece that flew out of the machine, killing Rochette and injuring Stewart.

Greg Taylor, 40, a day foreman at the time of Rochette's death, pleaded guilty to one charge of failing to ensure the oversized obstruction was properly removed from the crusher, before Rochette and Stewart made their attempt, costing the former his life.

Taylor was charged $3,000 because his actions happened earlier that day, and did not lead directly to Rochette's death.

Following its investigation the Ministry of Labour also charged two Vale supervisors – Eric Labelle and Glenn Munro – but those charges were later dropped.  

Mike Bond, health and safety chair for the United Steelworkers Local 6500, said companies and managers need to face criminal repercussions to make workplaces safer.

“The million dollars is nothing to these big companies,” Bond said.

In 2004 the federal government amended the criminal code through Bill C-45 – often called the Westray Bill – which allowed for managers to be found criminally responsible for workplace fatalities.

But the amendment has only been invoked a handful of times since then. 

Stuart Harshaw, Vale’s Vice President of Ontario Operations, released the following statement on behalf of Vale:

While the legal aspects of this matter have been resolved, Paul’s loss continues to be felt deeply by all of us at Vale and within the community. This has been an extremely difficult time for everyone involved, but nobody more so than Paul’s family, and Justin Stewart and his family.

Since this incident, as a result of our joint investigation with the United Steelworkers Local 6500, we have taken responsibility and concrete action to prevent a similar incident from ever occurring. In total, 58 recommendations have been addressed in the crushing area of the smelter and more broadly across our operations.

We can say with confidence that our operations are safer now as a result.

There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our people, and the loss of one of our employees is devastating. We never again want to see another situation where one of our own doesn’t return home safely to their family.

Zero harm to our employees continues to be what we strive for, and these efforts will continue through our day to day work. Vale will also actively participate in the Coroner’s Inquest that will take place according to provincial law. It is our intent to learn everything we can through that process as well when it occurs.