Piper John Straight leads a procession Sunday at the Steelworkers Hall to honour workers killed or injured on the job. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Port Alberni workers remember those who have died on the job

Alberni Valley fire chief speaks of job dangers that claimed two colleagues in 2019

BY MIKE YOUDS

A much-loved career firefighter who lost her life only three months ago to work-related disease was remembered during Sunday’s Day of Mourning ceremony in Port Alberni.

Carla Kulczycki, 46, died Jan. 2 after a lengthy battle with the disease, presumed to be the result of workplace exposure to toxic materials. A mother of three daughters, she had served Sproat Lake Fire Department for 16 years. An honour guard parade of firefighters marched in her memory a few days later.

READ: Sproat Lake first responder ‘was a firefighter right until her passing’

Fire Chief Mike Cann remembered his colleague as one felled, not by fire, but by a worsening epidemic of toxic exposure in the firefighting profession. Kulczyki is among thousands of firefighters who have met a similar fate from exposure to hazardous smoke, soot and combusted composite materials in the course of their duties.

As a result of the rising occupational toll, smoke has come to be considered more dangerous than the fire itself, Cann said.

“Cancer now ranks as the leading cause of death for all firefighters,” he noted. The cancer rate among firefighters is three times higher than the rest of the population.

READ: Cherry Creek firefighters mourn former deputy chief

Fire departments are adopting greater precautions in an effort to reduce the risk, Cann said. All gear used on fires is considered hazardous material and returns to the hall bagged for cleaning. Balaclavas firefighters wear under their helmets are now made with an impermeable barrier to block hazardous materials.

National Day of Mourning is observed in communities around the world each April 28, a solemn occasion to honour workers who previous year were killed, injured or disabled on the job during the previous year. In B.C. alone, there were 138 work-related deaths in 2018, a slight drop from 158 in 2017.

“It’s more than a day of remembrance,” said MP Gord Johns. “It also an opportunity to renew our commitment to safety in the workplace.”

A brief ceremony held each year at the Steelworker’s Hall draws about 50 people, including a large contingent of local firefighters and various other union members.

Mike Millholm of WorkSafeBC said seven workers were killed on the job on Vancouver Island last year.

“Each of those deaths is a tragedy,” and underscores the continuing need for safer, healthier workplaces, he said. “Health and safety must be our priority every day of the year.”

Occupational disease continues to claim the most lives among Canadian workers mostly due to the terrible legacy of asbestos exposure in the construction trade up to the 1990s, when its use as a fire inhibitor in drywall was curtailed. However, it was only last year that asbestos was banned entirely in Canada.

A fire prevention officer, Millholm is one of six in the province responsible for safeguarding against combustible dust in sawmills in the aftermath of deadly explosions seven years ago. He recalled the vivid memory of his first day on the job, confronted with a workplace fatality.

“They are preventable, not inevitable; they are not the cost of doing business,” he said.

Millholm said WorkSafeBC focuses its health and safety efforts on overall risk with priority given to the most dangerous occupations — forestry, manufacturing, construction and health care. Construction topped the list last year with 34 deaths in the general construction field.

 

Fire Chief Mike Cann, Sproat Lake Fire Department, lays flowers at a memorial during a National Day of Mourning ceremony Sunday for workers killed or injured in the workplace. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

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