Last week, managers at Saint John Laundry failed to follow fire safety protocols during a fire alarm, putting workers at risk. CUPE represents 120 workers at the facility. The union is calling for the management responsible to be fired after this “blatent mismanagement.”
On March 3, the fire alarm at Saint John Laundry went off at 1:05 pm. The employees left their workstations and went outside to be roll-called to make sure everyone was out. However, a short time later, while the alarm was still ringing and before the fire department had arrived or the cause of the alarm identified, the management ordered the staff to re-enter the building, return to their positions and recommence work.
The incident follows years of workplace problems at the facility. Saint John Laundry processes the linens for almost half the nursing homes and hospitals in New Brunswick.
“That is an industrial facility, processing on average 25 tons of linens per day. There is major amperage running for the machines in there, all kinds of strong chemicals, solvents, massive propane-run dryers,” explained Brent Wiggins, President of CUPE 1190.
On March 5, CUPE called a press conference to highlight the danger their members had been exposed to. Recalling the fire alarm incident, Saint John Laundry worker Brendan Boucher explained that after the workers had been ordered back inside, with the alarm still ringing, a burning smell was detected. Management then urged everyone to exit the building a second time, with panicked supervisors running and screaming above the noise of the alarm and the machines. Once outside, a second roll call was not made. It was unclear if anyone remained inside while the firefighters were entering the building.
Boucher also mentioned previous incidents at the facility when management told workers to not pull the fire alarm despite concerns, including an actual fire in a mop bucket.
“It’s not the first time that management has shown ineptitude, disrespect and disregard for their employees,” said Chris Curran, president of CUPE local 1251. “This month’s case is frightening. They completely disregarded the health and safety of their whole staff just to maintain productivity above all else.”
Ever since a fire 110 years ago this month at a garment factory in New York City, employers have their safety record judged by their response to fire alarms. According to CUPE, the managers at Saint John Laundry have failed the safety test.
March 25, 1911 is remembered in union history as the tragedy and crime that changed workplace health and safety forever. On that day, 146 garment workers – mostly women and girls – at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan perished because of gross negligence by their employer during a fire. The employers routinely locked the doors to the exit stairways to monitor the workers’ movements, and when the fire broke out that day, the workers were unable to escape.
Fires in workplaces are always potentially deadly. However, a century after the New York tragedy, health and safety legislation, strict building codes, and fire protocols have been widely implemented. These measures will only be effective if they are respected by both workers and management.
In 2004, the federal criminal code was amended (Bill C-15) to clarify that employers have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to workers.
When a fire alarm rings at a workplace, the fire department responds. Workers must leave the building and gather at a designated spot, and not return to the building until the fire alarm is turned off and the fire department gives the all-clear. On March 3, Saint John Laundry management did not follow the fire safety protocol.
CUPE locals 1251 and 1190 sent letters to Service New Brunswick Minister Mary Wilson about the incident, demanding the immediate termination of the management responsible, an incident investigation, and a broader investigation into “this toxic workplace, covering the ongoing issues, with a complete report provided to the CUPE locals.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is the largest public sector union in Canada, representing more than 28,000 workers in New Brunswick.
Susan O’Donnell is a writer for the NB Media Co-op.