Mill workers often cleared log jams while equipment was running, coroner inquest hears

·3 min read
William Gregg, who had worked at the mill for 26 years, suffered a head injury in the chipper building on Feb. 29, 2016. He later died in hospital. He was 52. (Wallace Funeral Home - image credit)
William Gregg, who had worked at the mill for 26 years, suffered a head injury in the chipper building on Feb. 29, 2016. He later died in hospital. He was 52. (Wallace Funeral Home - image credit)

According to current and former employees of the J.D. Irving chip mill in Sussex, almost every employee had tried to clear a log jam in the high-powered machinery while the conveyer belt and chipper were still running.

Six current and former employees testified at a coroner's inquest Tuesday at the Saint John courthouse. The inquest was ordered after 52-year-old William Gregg died on the job at the mill in February of 2016.

He was a veteran operator at the plant, and died after being hit by a pry bar he was using to clear a log jam while the conveyer belt was running.

The five-foot metal bar was driven toward Gregg by the moving machinery, provincial court previously heard.

JDI pleaded guilty to failing to make sure its employees comply with health and safety regulations, and was fined $80,000.

CBC
CBC

The inquest's goal is to make recommendations to prevent similar deaths from happening. Five jurors were chosen at the Saint John courthouse Tuesday morning, and testimony began at 11 p.m.

Sherwin MacBurnie, a former employee who had worked there for 46 years, told the inquest workers were given a bonus for a high-output day at the chip mill.

He said the bonus was given to everyone — so if one person was slow, no one got the bonus. He said this resulted in people prioritizing the bonus over safety.

"I think it's really dangerous," he said. "I've seen guys run down a cat walk to get something that was jammed because they don't want to lose the bonus and they don't want to be called out."

He said the "pressure" would come from other employees, not management.

He said it sometimes took "too long" for the machinery to power down then back up, approximately 25 minutes in total. He said this was a disincentive for workers to turn off the machinery.

Instead, they'd use a pry bar or other equipment to hit the wood and get it moving into the chipper. He said workers would turn off the machinery if the jam was stubborn.

'I was waiting for him to come back'

Two men, Adam Snyder and Keegan Warden testified they found Gregg unconscious on the chip mill floor.

They said they went to the building where he was working to change over some equipment. They'd do this at lunchtime every day, and usually, the machinery would be off when they arrived.

But on February 29, 2016, the machine was still running. They suspected someone had forgotten to turn off the belt, Snyder said, so they went up the stairs.

Warden was the first person to see Gregg on the floor. He said he screamed Gregg's name, and when he didn't get a response, called for Snyder to call for help.

Snyder ran to the other building and got MacBurnie, who was trained to do CPR.

MacBurnie said he performed chest compressions for what he was later told was 18 minutes, but Gregg was not moving.

"What you wait for is a response from that person," he said. "I was still waiting for him to come back."

Snyder said it took the ambulance between 30 and 35 minutes to arrive at the mill.

Working overtime

Jason Thompson was a supervisor in 2016. He testified Gregg had already worked 12 hours and then had to cover for another operator that morning.

He described Gregg as a "hard worker" who was "very loyal."

He said he had found a replacement to come in at 1 p.m., so Gregg would have been working for 18 hours. Thompson said workers receive an overtime bonus if they work past their 12 hour shifts.

The inquest is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

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