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JD Irving Sussex Sawmill Death Sparks Safety Recommendations

NEW BRUNSWICK (From news reports) - The death of an employee at a Sussex sawmill has led to several recommendations to improve safety.

William Douglas Gregg was killed in a workplace accident at the J.D. Irving Sawmill in Feb. 2016.

His death led to a mandatory coroner's inquest which was held in Saint John earlier this week.

The five-member jury heard from 12 witnesses and made four recommendations to improve the safety of people working in sawmills.

  • It should be clear on roles and responsibilities of who is responsible for start up and shut down of equipment.
  • Clear and defined handoff procedures should be established between production mode versus maintenance mode when equipment is being shut down or locked out.
  • Training plans, safety observations and audits should be used to ensure employees remain proficient and that work practices remain safe.
  • Emergency response plans should include instructions on communication to local authorities and instructions for site access. Response plans could be enhanced through the use of mock drills.

The chief coroner will send the recommendations to the appropriate agency for consideration and response.

The inquest does not make any finding of legal responsibility nor assign blame, rather recommendations can be made aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

They are mandatory any time a worker dies in an accident during the course of their employment at or in a woodland operation, sawmill, lumber processing plant, food processing plant, fish processing plant, construction project site, mining plant or mine, including a pit or quarry.


According to current and former employees of the J.D. Irving chip mill in Sussex, almost every employee had tried to clear a logjam 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 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 logjam 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.

Since 2016, JDI has updated its rules to include shift-length limits and more supervisors. In 2016 there were no written rules on how to remove logjams, but that has also changed after Gregg's death, the inquest heard.

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

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.

Jason Thomson 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. Thomson said workers receive an overtime bonus if they work past their 12 hour shifts.

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