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Charges stayed in mill death

Sawmill worker was killed in workplace accident in 2004

It's been almost seven years since sawmill worker Lyle Hewer died in a workplace accident at Weyerhaeuser's now-closed New Westminster sawmill, and Wednesday may have been the final chapter in the sad story behind his death.

Crown prosecutors decided to stay charges in the private prosecution brought forward by the United Steelworkers against Weyerhaeuser.

That decision is the third time the Crown has declined to move forward with the case.

"I think to say we're disappointed would be an understatement," said Stephen Hunt, western Canadian director of the United Steelworkers. "A man died here in one of the most egregious cases of workplace negligence. We're very disappointed the Crown is not moving ahead with this case."

Hewer, 55, died on Nov. 17, 2004 while working at Weyerhaeuser's New Westminster sawmill. Hewer was clearing the bottom of a large grinding machine called a hog. The hog converts wood

waste to chips. The debris wedged above him came loose while he was working on it and smothered him.

The machine was known to be dangerous, but sawmill senior management resisted work orders from line managers to make it safer.

According to a Worksafe B.C. report, mill managers determined that making the hog less dangerous, at a cost of $30,000, was too expensive.

In 2007, Worksafe B.C. levied a fine of $297,000 against Weyerhaeuser Canada, citing the fact mill management ignored safety concerns and condoned a culture where "complacency in the face of danger became the norm."

While both Worksafe B.C. and New Westminster Police Service investigators recommended to Crown counsel that there was enough evidence for charges to be laid, Crown twice declined to move forward with the case in criminal court.

In March 2010, the United Steelworkers made their case for a private prosecution of Weyerhaeuser, a rarely seen legal manoeuvre that was led by prominent lawyer and Queen's Council member Glen Orris.

The Steelworkers learned of the Crown's decision not to move forward on Wednesday.

Hunt said the Steelworkers pursued the private prosecution after doing much research and conferring with Orris.

"Glen is a former Crown (prosecutor), and, after he saw the facts, he told us this was something we should be moving forward on," said Hunt. "This is a very sad outcome."

After Hewer's death, changes were made at the sawmill, including removing the manager who asked Hewer to clean out the hog. The sawmill was subsequently sold to Western Forest Products, which has since shut it down.

Hunt said that while this part of the process is done, the Steelworkers still intend to keep the issue of workplace safety at the forefront.

"I believe we have to go to Ottawa and lobby our politicians to make the laws stronger to protect workers," said Hunt. "What this case has taught us is the laws are inadequate.

"It just doesn't make sense. When workers die, it is only fair that the Criminal Code be enforced." AlfieLau