Travelling on BC Ferries got much riskier during the past five years, according to the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union.
The union is alleging a "stark decline in safety standards" and a "potentially catastrophic effect on employees and the travelling public" in its effort to reverse a 2010 decision that excluded chief engineers from the bargaining unit.
Moving the chief engineers into management has resulted in one crash and several unsafe decisions that could have had disastrous consequences, according to the union's 16-page legal brief urging arbitrator Vince Ready to reverse his earlier decision.
A BC Ferries spokesperson said the company would not comment as it awaits Ready's ruling.
The union argues Ready got it wrong when he accepted the ferry corporation's position that chief engineers are managers and should be excluded from the union.
"Rather than augmenting safety, which was a primary rationale for exclusion, the exclusion of the Chief Engineers has resulted in significant safety violations," it maintains.
"The exclusions have had the unintended consequence of creating a cadre of Chief Engineers with little or no BC Ferries experience, knowledge of Transport Canada regulations, or knowledge of the applicable BC legislation," the union says.
Exodus of chief engineers after ruling
Before BC Ferries bumped chief engineers from the union, they had an average 18 years of experience with the company.
After Ready's ruling, almost 60 per cent of BC Ferries chief engineers left their jobs. Fourteen took demotions to stay in the union and 18 left the company. Only 23 of the 55 chief engineers decided to step into management ranks.
BC Ferries filled the vacancies by hiring at least eight people from the Royal Canadian Navy and others from outside Canada. It also reduced job requirements so it could promote people from within the company who wouldn't previously have qualified to be chief engineers.
"Ironically, 3rd Engineers [who remain in the bargaining unit] now require more experience and training at BC Ferries than Senior or Chief Engineers," the union's argument said.
The union said the changes have resulted in less-experienced people in the top engineering positions and a dangerously divided workforce.
"Exclusions have resulted in a significant deterioration in morale, communication, trust, and respect within the engineering team," its brief said. "This has adversely impacted the safety and seaworthiness of the vessels, adherence to regulations, the efficient and safe operation of the vessels, and, ultimately, the wellbeing of the travelling public."
Queen of Coquitlam crash result of change, union says
The union argues the decision to remove chief engineers from the union led to the crash of the Queen of Coquitlam in November 2011. The ferry crashed into the Departure Bay terminal, damaging the ship and the dock. No one was hurt.
"Lack of experience and communication" caused the hard landing, the union said. "The crash resulted from an error made by the Senior Chief Engineer, who obviously lacked knowledge of the vessel."
The union also alleged the chief engineer on the Queen of Surrey changed the seal on an air conditioning compressor that he wasn't qualified to work on, in violation of BC Ferries' policy. At least 90 pounds of ozone-depleting Freon gas leaked into the atmosphere.
The union said the leak was "a significant environmental and regulatory concern" and cited an expert witness who blamed the chief engineer's lack of knowledge of BC Ferries procedures.
The union's legal argument alleged other "serious breaches" of "Transport Canada regulations, BC Ferries policies, B.C. legislation, engineering practices and engineering common sense."
As a result, ferries operated "in unsafe conditions which could have resulted in dire consequences, even death, to employees and the travelling public."
For two days in February 2014, for example, the Queen of Coquitlam sailed without a working emergency generator.
The union brief, citing the evidence of Eduardo Muñoz, "a highly qualified, experienced engineer, who served BC Ferries for many years as a Chief Engineer and Senior Chief Engineer," said the situation was potentially disastrous. (Muñoz is also the president of the Ships' Officers' Component of the union, according to its website.)
"If the main electrical power system failed there would be no power for the bilge pumps, only one of the three fire pumps would work and there would be no steering ability," the document said. ¨In the event of flooding, there would be no ability to pump out water, so the ship could sink as occurred with the Costa Concordia."
The union said witnesses for BC Ferries and the union agreed sailing without a working emergency generator is against Transport Canada regulations and "could result in a very serious situation, including the loss of life."
Chief engineers need protection from company pressure, union says
Muñoz was one of two witnesses who "attributed the incident either to the Chief Engineer's lack of experience and ignorance of regulations and corporate policies or to pressure from above."
The document noted that a memo to BC Ferries' CEO Mike Corrigan about the incident said, "The Site Investigation concluded the desire to maintain the vessel in operation for customer service reasons was 'the root cause of the incident.'"
"The management imperative of reliability clearly overrode safety considerations," the union charged.
The Coastal Renaissance also had problems that should have kept it out of service so it wouldn't be carrying passengers, the union alleged. In 2013 the German-built ferry made at least three sailings with a serious technical problem that could have resulted in "the loss of propulsion and steering which, in a worst case scenario, could result in the vessel running aground or sinking."
Two different chief engineers oversaw those sailings.
The Queen of Coquitlam sailed one day in August 2014 with a technical problem that had caused a brown out or a black out, the union alleged. "Because the emergency generator was already being utilized, it would not be available in an emergency and could result the complete loss of power, propulsion, steering, and firefighting capability," the union's document said. "Ultimately the vessel could sink."
"The interviews during the investigation revealed the decision to sail with [the problem] was made by the Chief Engineer and Master under pressure from the Senior Chief, despite the 1st Engineer advising them that sailing in that condition was illegal."
Before BC Ferries excluded the chief engineers from the union they were better able to make decisions that put safety above the needs of the company, the union's legal argument concluded.
"Chief Engineers enjoyed the full protection of the collective agreement," it said. "They were free, in the circumstances, to exercise their regulatory obligations (both safety and environmental) without fear of reprisal, even where those obligations were inconsistent with the employer's managerial imperative."
Chief engineers need to be able to make decisions that ensure vessels are safe and meeting Transport Canada's requirements, even when that doesn't align with BC Ferries' priorities, it said.
"The evidence shows, from a safety and environmental perspective, they have not been successful in doing so," the union maintained.
"The decline in safety standards is in large part attributable to the reality that the decision to exclude chief engineers from the bargaining unit upset the delicate balance with which safety is protected and maintained on board the employer's vessels."
The union and the company submitted their arguments in February and there is no indication when Ready is likely to announce his decision.