N.S. carpenter paralyzed in work injury on Highway 104 project frustrated by Workers' Compensation Board
Daily life at the MacKay household in Trenton, N.S., has changed dramatically ever since 50-year-old Matthew was paralyzed while working on the twinning of Nova Scotia Highway 104.
The $364.3 million construction project is meant to address safety concerns along the stretch of highway between Sutherlands River and Antigonish. The newly twinned section opened Dec. 6, the same day CTV News spoke to the MacKays.
“You think that you're going to be taken care of, until you go through it,” says his wife, Jodi, tears welling in her eyes.
The Aug. 3 incident wasn't made public by the province at the time it happened.
The Department of Labour has confirmed to CTV News that officers with the safety branch responded to a safety incident that occurred on Hwy. 104 in Barney’s River, in which “one worker fell from heights resulting in injuries and was taken to hospital.”
Two stop work orders were issued the same day and were lifted Aug. 24 after an inspection to verify the worksite was safe.
It says it does not typically send out a news release about workplace incidents “unless it is to address matters of public safety.”
The department says the investigation is continuing.
As an experienced carpenter, Matthew had been working in housing construction until he heard about the work available with the project. It was Matthew’s first time on a highway project, and he was put to work constructing forms for concrete pouring.
A video he took of the jobsite roughly a week before the incident shows his point of view working on a bridge overpass, a wooden safety rail visible.
“The first fall was 10 feet, the safety rail broke,” says Jodi. “And then he went up the ladder, and went over to the side of the rail, fell again 25 feet, fell on a five-gallon pail of nuts and bolts.”
Matthew doesn’t remember the accident. Jodi says she got the details from a co-worker at the site and from safety investigators.
Matthew was first taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, then transported by LifeFlight to Halifax for emergency surgery.
The incident rendered him a T4-T5 paraplegic.
After weeks of recovery and rehabilitation, he came home Oct. 21.
An avid woodsman and fisherman, Matthew wants to regain his independence.
“It's going to be different now, with the chair,” he says.
However, despite being approved through the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCB), renovations to make his home wheelchair accessible, which must be initiated by the WCB and carried out by WCB-approved contractors, have yet to begin.
It’s now four months and counting after his paralysis, and the MacKays are frustrated.
“There's never, ever a reason given why it's taken so long,” says Jodi.
Waiting for the renovations means Matthew can’t wheel into a shower. Instead, his wife helps lift him from his rented wheelchair into a tub chair, something she’s concerned is a safety hazard.
The home only has one wheelchair accessible entrance and no way for Matthew to get to the basement.
A wheelchair ramp into the home was built by family and friends shortly after the accident, after Jodi says it was clear the WCB would not have one built in time for his homecoming.
“What's happening to Matthew and his family unfortunately is not a unique situation,” says Mary Lloyd, the president of the Pictou County Injured Workers Association.
Lloyd says the renovations needed at the MacKay home are straightforward compared to others she’s seen in her 30 years of experience.
“They [WCB] knew the first week of Matthew’s injury that he was paraplegic,” says Lloyd. “It’s really bathroom modifications, rails, handgrips."
“Those initial things should have been done when he was discharged from the rehabilitation centre. He’d come home, he could access his home, he could go to his washroom,” she says.
Lloyd believes it’s only through Jodi’s efforts, with assistance from the association and local MLA Pat Dunn, that any progress was made in getting contractors to look at the home.
But there are still hurdles, she says.
“Even last week, we found out the wheelchair hadn't been ordered, which he, measurements and everything were done long ago, so it's just incompetence,” says Lloyd.
According to the WCB, a “relatively small number” of its 20,000 annual claims require home renovation.
No one from the WCB would speak directly to the MacKays’ case, citing privacy concerns.
But its vice-president of service excellence says the organization realizes delays are difficult on workers and their families.
“Where an essential service is identified, we try to do it as expeditiously as possible,” says Wendy Griffin. “We understand that time delays in this type of service are an added stress.”
Griffin says there’s no standard timeline for accessibility renovations, as every case is different.
But she acknowledges worker shortages in construction are part of the issue.
“Certainly, the WCB are experiencing challenges securing contractor services,” says Griffin. “So, we're challenging ourselves to really take a step back and think about the processes that we use to secure this kind of service.”
“We are always looking to improve and evaluate how we deliver services,” she adds.
For the MacKays, those words aren’t enough to relieve the strain of trying to manage their new reality.
“This is not just me, this happens every day to people, and they're treated the same way,” says Matthew. “They’ve got to do a better job.”
“People talk about how health care is in such a crisis,” adds Jodi. “There's so many more crises and WCB is one.”
The couple says contractors who came to their home Thursday told them work on modifications likely won’t begin until the new year.
In the meantime, they are thankful for the support from their three children and the community.
“Our kids help a lot,” Jodi says. “It’s just day by day.”
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