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Coroner’s inquest underway in American Iron and Metal workplace death

Click to play video: 'Inquest underway in AIM Saint John death'
Inquest underway in AIM Saint John death
A four-day inquest into the death of a worker at American Iron & Metal in Saint John is underway. Bruce Legace died in November 2021. As Nathalie Sturgeon reports, the first day of the inquest revealed the timeline of events. – Oct 10, 2023

A coroner’s inquest into a workplace death at American Iron and Metal has revealed the timeline and some of the circumstances.

Bruce Lagace died on Nov. 24, 2021, while he was delivering a load of scrap metal to the facility that operates in the Port of Saint John.

On Tuesday, seven witnesses took the stand in front of a jury of five people and presiding coroner Michael Johnston to share details about the circumstances around his death.

Lagace was driving for Deschênes Drilling at the time.

The timeline

Lagace was weighed on a scale early that morning, part of the process for delivering recyclables to the facility, on Nov. 24 and was directed to an area for heavy metal and steel.

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American Iron and Metal operates typically from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

An inspector, who oversees the removal of scrap from trucks, called for Justin Richards to come unload the truck. Operators use large cranes on wheels that have a grapple or magnet attached to the end.

The operator, Justin Richards, had been working for American Iron and Metal for eight months when the incident took place. WorkSafeNB / Submitted

Richards testified on Tuesday. He had only been working at AIM for about eight months at the time of the incident, but had about 10 years of experience working on heavy equipment.

He began by picking up clumps of scrap metal from the back of the trailer working toward the front, he told the jury.

After the grapple is unable to pick up any more of the material, operators use a bundled chain link fence, which is used to sweep dirt and remaining debris out of the trailer.

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Operators use a bundled piece of chain link fence to sweep the trailer of dirt and remaining debris. WorkSafeNB / Submitted

Around 9:05 a.m. a video presented by WorkSafeNB showed Lagace entering a door on the other side of the trailer near the cab of the truck while it was being cleared.

“Once you get in the trailer, the operator does not have a visual on you,” said Michel Cyr, manager of investigations for WorkSafeNB.

Richards also doesn’t recall seeing Lagace while he was sweeping the trailer. The cab of the crane is also blocked by safety bars, making it difficult to see as well.

Both Cyr and Richards explained the sweeping lasted for at least two minutes or about 10 sweeps before Richards noticed Lagace’s body.  Richards became emotional during his testimony Tuesday.

The operator clears the scrap from the front to back and the driver is responsible for opening the back of trailer. WorkSafeNB / Submitted

At 9:12 a.m. is when staff were alerted Lagace was buried in a pile of scrap metal.

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“They could see his legs and boot, and they identified it was a body,” Cyr told the jury.

Mike Lecelle, who was one of the inspectors that morning, said he left Lagace with another inspector while he went to go get another truck ready to unload.

He estimates he was gone about two minutes before returning to find Richards looking to be in distress, yelling “I buried him, I buried him, I think I killed him.”

A small pool of blood was found next to this shovel, according to the Saint John Police. WorkSafeNB / Submitted

Another inspector, Wesley Pratt, said he and some other workers began digging Lagace out. They decided to ask permission from 911 if it would be OK to move Lagace off the scrap pile for safety – and they did.

Police, fire and ambulance were called to the site and when police and ambulance arrived, the fire department had already initiated CPR.

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Chris Oakley was one of the responding paramedics and testified the call came in around 9:17 a.m.

Oakley said Lagace has severe head trauma. A large laceration to his face and part of his scalp was torn, laying away from his head.

He had severe crush injuries to his abdomen and had lot of bruising.

Oakley told the jury he was assessed by an advanced care paramedic and eventually put into an ambulance. Lagace momentarily regained a pulse, but lost it a few minutes later and paramedics were unable to regain it.

Some safety changes since accident 

WorkSafeNB told the jury Tuesday there were inconsistencies in where drivers should be when a truck is being unloaded.

“During the investigation, there was no clear procedure on how or what the drivers should do when they are there,” Cyr said. “It was impossible to identify a process.”

Documents from American Iron and Metal showed that Lagace signed off on safety parameters just five days before he was killed.

The remainder of WorkSafeNB’s findings are expected to be shared later in inquest process.

A video shows Lagace entering this door while the truck was being cleared.
A video shows Lagace entering this door while the truck was being cleared. WorkSafeNB / Submitted

Other AIM workers testified that drivers are supposed to return to the cab of the truck or stand about 30 feet in front of it and be near an inspector.

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Those safety protocols have been amped up, according to AIM employee Wesley Pratt. Now, drivers are not allowed to leave the cab of the truck, with the exception to open the trailer door.

New drivers and untrusted companies must also receive mandatory training and safety orientation before even being let into the scrap yard.

There is now a full-time site safety supervisor.

Police also did not determine any criminal wrongdoing in the case, but spent a few days investigating the site.

A coroner’s inquest does not assign any guilt, blame or responsibility, but is a fact-finding process to make recommendations to prevent further deaths in a similar manner.

The inquest continues on Wednesday.

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