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Judge orders Horizon to pay $80K for potentially exposing Fredericton hospital workers to asbestos

On Thursday, Regional Health Authority B, better known as Horizon, was to sentenced to pay an $80,000 alternate penalty to the New Brunswick Construction Safety Association.  (Hannah Rudderham/CBC - image credit)
On Thursday, Regional Health Authority B, better known as Horizon, was to sentenced to pay an $80,000 alternate penalty to the New Brunswick Construction Safety Association. (Hannah Rudderham/CBC - image credit)

A judge ruled Thursday that Horizon Health Network will pay $80,000 to the New Brunswick Construction Safety Association after an investigation revealed potential exposure of some Fredericton hospital employees to asbestos over nearly five years.

The money will go to a tool to help the construction industry deal with silica dust, which has overtaken asbestos as an occupational hazard of most concern, according to the association. The use of asbestos in construction is no longer allowed in Canada.

The months-long case was launched when WorkSafeNB accused Horizon of offences related to the potential exposure of some employees at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital to asbestos between Nov. 7, 2017, and Oct. 6, 2022.

The alternate penalty was a joint recommendation from prosecution and defence at a Feb. 7 sentencing hearing, where provincial court Judge Cameron Gunn reserved his decision.

On Thursday, Gunn said it would make little sense for the government to pay the government a regular fine, so an alternate penalty is more appropriate.

The offences are alleged to have occurred at Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton between Nov. 7, 2017, and Oct. 6, 2022.
The offences are alleged to have occurred at Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton between Nov. 7, 2017, and Oct. 6, 2022.

Horizon originally pleaded not guilty to four charges, but later changed its plea to guilty on two charges, and the other two were dropped. (Pat Richard/CBC)

The silica tool is a computer program that can determine how much silica dust is being produced at a construction site and provide occupational safety suggestions based on that information.

Silica dust is produced from jackhammering or breaking up concrete, Roy Silliker, the general manager and CEO of the New Brunswick Construction Safety Association, told CBC earlier.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety's website, crystalline silica is "very toxic," and prolonged or repeated exposure can cause lung damage and may cause cancer if inhaled.

Outside the courthouse on Thursday, Jeff Carter, Horizon's vice-president of capital assets, said the judge's ruling was appropriate and what he expected.

"Horizon, its mission, vision, values, all circulate around helping people be healthy," he said. "I think this judgment is conducive to that.

"We're not in the construction business, but there's a lot of construction that goes on at our facilities. So this will help make our buildings safer for those that are providing those construction services."

He also said Horizon has made efforts toward asbestos management since the discovery and another $500,000 has been earmarked for asbestos management.

Jeff Carter, Horizon's vice-president of capital assets, said both sides represented the case accurately and the authority would likely have more to say on Feb. 22.
Jeff Carter, Horizon's vice-president of capital assets, said both sides represented the case accurately and the authority would likely have more to say on Feb. 22.

Jeff Carter, Horizon's vice-president of capital assets, seen here after the Feb. 7 court appearance, said Thursday that he thought the ruling was appropriate. (Pat Richard/CBC)

A WorkSafeNB spokesperson previously told CBC News that the asbestos was contained in the "interstitial space" or area between floors, which is inaccessible to the public, patients, and "most employees."

The WorkSafeNB representative present at the courthouse declined to comment on the ruling Thursday, but corporate communications manager Lynn Meahan-Carson later answered questions in an email.

She said WorkSafeNB does not comment on court decisions, but she did say WorkSafeNB will fund the balance of the cost of the silica control tool that isn't covered by the penalty.

WorkSafeNB previously said it couldn't say what prompted the investigation at the Chalmers hospital because it was before the courts. But on Thursday, Meahan-Carson said on June 30, 2022, a contractor contacted WorkSafeNB with questions about asbestos.

"One of our asbestos specialists worked with the contractor, and together they found further asbestos-related issues. All work within the interstitial space was suspended this same day," she said in the email.

Then, on Oct. 6, 2022, an employee reported a potential exposure incident, said Meahan-Carson. This, she said, was prompted by employees seeing contractors working in the interstitial space wearing personal protective equipment required for working with asbestos.

Horizon originally pleaded not guilty to four charges, but later changed its plea to guilty on two charges, and the other two were dropped.

In addition to the $80,000 penalty, Horizon was also ordered to pay a 20 per cent surcharge of $16,000.