Lac MéganticA jury has acquitted all three rail workers charged with criminal negligence causing death of 47 persons in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

For those of you who may not have been following this story, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, had all been charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one count for each of the victims of the rail disaster — after the derailment of a runaway train carrying 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil early on July 6, 2013.  The jury deliberated for nine days.

This is a victory not just for the three rail workers, but also for the families of the victims who those truly to blame to be held responsible, and a victory for all workers who battle against the tendency of management — and often governments — to take the easy way out by blaming workers for these events. Blaming workers is not only wrong, but it does nothing identify the real causes and prevent future, similar tragedies.

I have written about this tragedy and the trial several times before, specifically how the rail workers are being blamed for a railroad with a weak safety culture and a clear failure of management to establish and enforce safe procedures. MMA, an American-owned company, has since gone bankrupt.  If you’re interested in a detailed description of the incident, the system safety failures and a detailed summary of the Canadian Government’s investigative report, read my first post here.

A Company At Fault

Harding, the train engineer and sole crew member on the huge one-man train, was accused of not setting enough brakes. But as other employees testified during the trial, the safety culture at MMA were seriously lacking. For example:

Michael Horan, the former MMA assistant director of transportation, spent six days in the witness box, describing a work environment in Quebec in which his team received little material support from the U.S. head office. Though he was in charge of safety and training, Horan testified he had no budget or training for how to teach safety standards.

In his testimony, Horan also described the pushback from MMA employees about the company’s move to one-man train crews. He testified at least nine handbrakes should have been applied to the train Harding left idling at Nantes on the eve of the disaster.

Another employee testified that

it was common practice for MMA’s top management to play loose with railway regulations. He confirmed the maximum weight allowed for an MMA tanker train at the time of the disaster was 6,300 tonnes, not counting locomotives. The train involved in the tragedy weighed 9,100 tonnes.

In addition, although trains have more than one breaking system, MMA had instructed engineers not to use one of the backup systems and another backup system had been turned off when the lead locomotive caught fire the night of the disaster.

Even the relatives of the victims were happy with the verdict:

Jean Clusiault, who lost his daughter Kathy in the explosion, praised the verdict outside the courtroom.

“I felt relieved because these are not the right people who should be there,” he said.

Clusiault said Harding, Demaître and Labrie didn’t deserve to be blamed for the fatal rail disaster and explosion in downtown Lac-Mégantic.

“These are human beings with families who worked hard all their lives,” Clusiault said. “These aren’t killers. We treated them like killers.”

Blame the Worker

As I said before, the theme here is one that we’ve heard many times before — the tendency of those who have responsibility for a catastrophe to shift blame onto individual workers instead of identifying and addressing the root causes and systemic problems that could prevent future catastrophes.

This was the story not of careless, lazy workers but of a railroad carrying hazardous cargo, supported by an extremely complicated, safety sensitive procedures, that cut corners on safety and maintenance wherever it could, had a non-existent training program and a government oversight agency that failed in its mission to protect workers and the public.

In other words, only the most superficial analysis of this horrible tragedy would conclude that these three rail workers should be blamed for the deaths of 47 people and possibly imprisoned for the rest of their lives.  Happily the jury saw through this charade. A conviction might have helped take the blame off of others. But it would have done nothing to identify the true root causes of this catastrophe or to prevent future events.


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