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Culture change needed to improve safety, says grief-stricken mother

April 29, 2022  By Klaudia Van Emmerik / Global News

Cailen Vilness was just 24 years old when he was tragically killed at a highrise construction site in downtown Kelowna, B.C.

Three of his coworkers also died, along with a man working in an adjacent office building, when a construction crane came crashing down on July 12, 2021.

“I died that day,” said Vilness’ mother, Danielle Pritchett. “When I lost my son, I died. A piece of me died that day.”

The grief-stricken mother made the comments at a Day of Mourning ceremony held at Ben Lee Park in Kelowna on Thursday afternoon.

Pritchett was a keynote speaker at the event, organized by the North Okanagan Labour Council and WorkSafe BC.

Fighting back tears, Pritchett told Global News she never imagined she’d be front-and-centre at an event like this.

“No, never, ” she said. “Never.”

Pritchett recalled the moment she found out about the crane collapse early that day, not knowing at that point her son was one of the men killed.

“My heart, it sunk,” she said.

It was at 9 p.m., when she finally received confirmation of her son’s death.

“It’s the worst pain I’ve experienced in my life … losing a child,” Pritchett said.

The loss prompted Pritchett to share some troubling stories that her son told her about the various worksites he’d worked on over the years.

“He would tell me of the infractions he would see, of the pressure he received, even from his foreman, to do the work unsafely,” she told the crowd.

But Pritchett said when her son began advocating for safer work practices at various job sites, he began being ostracized

“He began to point out if somebody wasn’t tied off properly, or whatever the infractions were that he saw,” she said.

“He began to be ostracized by his coworkers. He was ostracized by his bosses, by the foreman, and by the company. He was even demoted in his duties on the job because he was pointing out unsafe work.”

Pritchett called for changes to workplace culture, so that safety is the top priority without any repercussions.

“I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, but I am opening Pandora’s box so we can take a real hard look,” she said.

According to the North Okanagan Labour Council, there were 161 work-related deaths in BC in 2021, including eight in the region.

That’s 10 more deaths from the year before.

“We’re not meant to exchange our lives for dollars. It’s supposed to be our time and our knowledge, not our lives, ” said Ian Gordon, president of the North Okanagan Labour Council.

“So we have to remember that and celebrate those people that had made that sacrifice so that it doesn’t happen again.”

An emotional Pritchett pleaded with workers, especially those in the construction industry, to never cut corners, no matter what.

“Just do the right thing. A mother is pleading with you to do the right thing. So that your mother is not standing here today.”

WorkSafe BC has not yet released any details in the investigation into the crane collapse.

(Global News)

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