BC Ferries 'Very Safe,' Minister Responds to Union Claims

Ferry workers allege contract change led to 'stark decline in safety standards.'

By Andrew MacLeod 27 Apr 2016 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

The union representing workers at BC Ferries is wrong that safety standards at the government-owned company have slipped over the past five years, says British Columbia Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone.

"This is one of the... safest ferry operators in the entire world," said Stone. "I think it would be refreshing to have people focus on that reality as opposed to constantly looking and nitpicking for little pieces here and there, which on the safety front just don't exist. This is a very safe ferry operation."

The B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union detailed its safety concerns in a written legal argument that asked arbitrator Vince Ready to reverse a 2010 decision that allowed the company to exclude chief engineers from the bargaining unit, The Tyee reported April 21.

The change led to a "stark decline in safety standards" that could have a "potentially catastrophic effect on employees and the travelling public," the union said. It alleged the move is to blame for one crash and several unsafe decisions that it says in some cases broke federal transportation laws and could have, in the worst-case scenario, led to vessels sinking.

NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena said the union's allegations have to be taken seriously. "We're talking about safety on our marine highway," she told The Tyee last week. "We have serious incidences spelled out really clearly here."

Stone said safety is the top consideration for BC Ferries and that he's proud of the work both management and union staff do to make the system one of the safest in the world.

"There are no specific situations or incidents, certainly in my time as minister and I think even before that, that really bring safety concerns to the forefront of my mind," he said.

"BC Ferries has to operate within the very strict safety guidelines Transport Canada has," he said. "I am not aware of any flagrant violations, safety violations, of Transport Canada guidelines."

Transport Canada informed of 'incidents'

A spokesperson for Transport Canada said the federal regulatory body was aware of problems aboard the Coastal Renaissance and Queen of Coquitlam that the union raised in its legal argument. "Transport Canada was informed of these incidents and the necessary actions were taken," said Sau Sau Liu in an emailed statement.

The incidents the union listed included:

• The Coastal Renaissance made at least three sailings in 2013 with an electrical problem that could have caused "the loss of propulsion and steering which, in a worst case scenario, could result in the vessel running aground or sinking";

• For two days in February 2014, the Queen of Coquitlam sailed without a working emergency generator. "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 Queen of Coquitlam sailed one day in August 2014 with a technical problem that had caused a brown out or a black out. "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 union's written argument said that 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.

"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."

The union said the changes have resulted in less-experienced people in the top engineering positions and a dangerously divided workforce.

Representatives of each of BC Ferries and the union have said they will not comment while the matter is in arbitration.  [Tyee]

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