January 11, 2022

Merrill O’Donnell Workers AdvocateWHEN KEY MANDATES of the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) are to provide timely return to work and cost effectiveness, you know somebody is going to get hurt.  That somebody, of course, is a worker. Oftentimes, it happens when the injured worker is compelled to return to work before they have recovered. I witness such scenarios almost every week in my role as the Building Trades Workers Advocate.

In September 2021, the BC Ombudsperson released a scathing report on the WCB’s decision-making processes entitled Severed Trust: Enabling WorkSafeBC to do the right thing when its mistakes hurt injured workers. The importance of this report cannot be overstated. This report underscores many problems in the WCB system that have been noted in other reports, most importantly, New Directions: Report of the WCB Review 2019 (Oct. 30, 2019); Restoring the Balance: A Worker-centred Approach to WCB Policy (March 31, 2018); and Insult to Injury (April 22, 2009). But will the  government listen to the Ombudsperson’s most recent clarion call and direct the WCB to make the much-needed changes?

The Severed Trust report recounts the horrific story of “Mr. Snider,” a cabinet maker, who severed the tips of four fingers in a table saw incident. Following the incident, the WCB accepted his claim and supported him with hand therapy, occupational rehabilitation and surgery. Eight months later, the WCB told the worker he should return to work and terminated his wage loss benefits. The worker protested. Among other things, he wrote WCB a letter saying: “The tools that I work with are quite powerful and sharp and I need to control them better than I can or I’m going to hurt myself again, or someone else very soon…” WCB refused to listen.

With his WCB payments terminated, the worker was compelled to return to work. Although he did not feel safe operating the industrial machinery, he did all the duties the employer asked of him. Within less than a week on the job, he lost control of two high-speed industrial saws. He informed the WCB and still they did nothing. On Jan. 26, 2011, about a year since his first injury, Mr. Snider injured himself again, but this time the incident was catastrophic. Unable to apply a firm grip with his partially amputated fingers, he lost control of the item on the table saw and his left hand slipped forward into the high-speed sawblade. First to contact the razor-sharp blade were his two partially amputated fingers. As these fingers were chewed up, the blade pulled the remainder of Snider’s
hand into its path, causing catastrophic tissue and bone damage and significant loss of blood. The BC Ombudsperson tallied the final toll:

The blade amputated Mr. Snider’s thumb below the last joint, fully amputated his index finger just above the knuckle, and amputated his middle and ring fingers close to the end joints. Mr. Snider then underwent 26 hours of surgery and spent 10 days in hospital in an intensive care unit.

The BC Ombudsperson has recommended that the Workers Compensation Act be amended to create a mechanism and a fund to enable WCB to provide monetary compensation to individuals who have been grievously and irreparably harmed as Mr. Snider was by WCB’s own mistakes. To date, the government has pushed back.

There is a lot more to this incident, the report, and the myriad failures of the WCB system it reveals, but limited space does not allow me to share it. Read the report for yourself.

There are many lessons in this tragic story for everybody, but most importantly for apprentices new to the trades. Listen to your inner voice. WCB makes mistakes – lots of them! Returning workers to their place of employment before they have recovered is all too common at WCB. Voice your concerns like Mr. Snider did. Appeal the WCB decisions like Mr. Snider did. Seek assistance from your union. Get a representative who knows the system. And if the WCB persists in telling you to return to work when you’re not ready, remember Mr. Snider. Ask yourself whether the risk of returning to work is worth your finger, your hand, your arm, or your life.

By Merrill O’Donnell
Workers Advocate