Cranberry worker’s death prompts use of life jackets

Harvest time at one of Richmond’s cranberry farms.  - file photo
Harvest time at one of Richmond’s cranberry farms.
— image credit: file photo

The tragic death of a local cranberry worker in late October has led to changes in the farming industry aimed at making the workplace safer in the future.

On Oct. 30, a worker for farm labour contractor Unique Labour Force had to be pulled to the side of a cranberry field at 16351 Cambie Rd. after sinking beneath the surface of about 2.5 feet of water. He was rushed to hospital, but died a few days later.

The man had worked in the field for the past five years, in both wet and dry conditions, and he knew the lay of the land, according to Geraldine Auston, director of communications for the B.C. Cranberry Growers Association.

She said the fields are marked, and workers are trained in safe practices.

The tragedy led to a quick response from the industry and WorkSafeBC, which reminded cranberry farms of occupational health safety requirements: “A worker who is employed under conditions which involve a risk of drowning must wear a personal flotation device (pfd) or lifejacket with sufficient buoyancy to keep the worker’s head above water.”

While industry reaction was relatively swift, many unanswered questions remain as separate investigations by the B.C. Coroners Service—which takes about five months—and WorkSafeBC continue.

Did the cranberry worker suffer a heart attack first, and then slip into the water? Or did slipping into the water trigger his heart attack which eventually proved fatal? And would a life jacket really have made a difference?

Shortly after the fatality, the tightly-knit cranberry industry was notified, and farmers scrambled to buy personal flotation devices for their workers.

WorkSafeBC also conducted inspection blitzes not long after during the tail end of the cranberry harvest, which normally runs from the last week of September, and can extend to the middle of November in some places in B.C.

According to a WorkSafeBC notification sent to the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association, the farm worker “was walking across a cranberry bog and stepped into an underwater cross-ditch. The worker called for help and sank beneath the surface. The other workers found the unconscious worker after five to 10 minutes.”

According to a Richmond Fire-Rescue report, the “Crestwood Fire Hall responded to an incident where a man had drowned in a cranberry field. Workers had pulled him to shore. On arrival, (Richmond Fire-Rescue) crews began to administer (cardio pulmonary resuscitation). RFR assisted (BC Ambulance Service) with patient care and a pulse was restored onsite.”

Auston said the worker suffered a heart attack and he was revived at the scene and taken to hospital.

“He did pass away a number of days later in hospital.”

But the final cause of death remains under investigation.

Auston said working in cranberry fields can be dangerous for those who don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s why access is restricted.

Whether the fatality could have been prevented or not, Auston said that will not change how the industry views it, as “a tragedy we don’t want to repeat.”

Wendy Bennett, from the Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association, said the reaction from farmers to bring in life jackets has been good, and a “number of them” are working on emergency plans, in the event something similar happens.

“The industry is working hard with consultants to ensure all health and safety precautions are in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Attempts to reach Unique Labour Force were unsuccessful.

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