BURNABY (NEWS1130) – The lead investigator into the deaths of three workers at a Langley mushroom farm almost four years ago says it’s lucky dozens more workers weren’t killed by the negligence of the farm operator.

WorkSafe BC‘s Mohinder Bhatti has told a coroner’s inquest the workers who died after being overcome by toxic fumes had no idea what they were doing when they tried to clear a clogged pipe in a small shed on the farm on 16th Avenue in September 2008.

Two other workers were left with severe brain damage.

Bhatti says if the workers had fully cleared the pipe, poison gas would have gushed out and could have killed more of the dozens of workers on the farm, had the wind carried it.

Bhatti explains that no engineers were asked about the construction of the composting site.

“It was built to fail,” he says.

Meanwhile, a colleague of Bhatti’s says if safety rules were followed, the men would likely not have died.

Geoffrey Clark, a senior occupational hygienist with WorkSafe BC, says the pump shed where the men died and left nearly brain-dead was a confined space with pipes making it hard to move around.

He says WorkSafe has written an exposure control plan, which states what is needed to keep workers safe in such a situation.

“In that shed, if there had been ventilation supplied, if there had been fresh air blowing in, and the workers had been wearing a respirator that could have protected them from at least a bit of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, and the rescue procedures had been in place, I don’t think anybody…certainly would not have died, and probably would not have been injured,” Clark says.

Clark says it’s up to workers and their employers to know the safety measures and follow them.

“If they’d had some awareness, I don’t think they would have gone in if they knew there was a risk that they could die,” he says.  “The employer, under the [rules], is responsible for identifying the hazards and providing information to workers, absolutely.”

Clark says WorkSafeBC did translate its rules around confined spaces into several languages, but only after the workers, most of them Vietnamese, died.

“The problem with any set of regulations is getting the regulations to the people, and people who are part of the permitting process should be aware of them, because there is provision and permits that you follow all of the applicable regulations.”

Paramedics have testified other frantic workers who spoke no English, tried to rescue the stricken men from the shed but had to be held back by ambulance workers.  One paramedic said he believes a language barrier led to delays in dispatching more help to the farm.

Tracy Phan, whose father Michael was one of the two men left nearly brain-dead after the incident, says her father talked to her mother about safety concerns before and felt he had little choice but to keep working.

“We didn’t know about confined spaces,” she says.

Phan adds she thinks the workers would have been afraid to stand up to their bosses over safety concerns.

“My dad was the breadwinner of the family.  He had to do everything he could to provide us with what we got,” Phan says.

“He was scared of saying no, I knew my mom was too,” she adds.  “They took what they could get.  If the owner needed help with something they would do it to the best that they could.  I know that many other workers on the farm are scared of losing their job.  They can’t speak up for themselves.  They know that in a community it’s small, things travel fast, so if you speak up, it will get back to you.  The consequences are not good,” Phan adds.

A part owner and operator of the farm, Thinh Huu Doan, was slated to testify Tuesday morning but did not show up.  Lawyers at the inquest say he was issued a subpoena and suggested coroner Norm Leibel issue a warrant for his arrest.  Leibel chose instead to hear from other witnesses.

Another owner of the farm, Ha Quan Truong, is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.