DFO manager kept report warning of noise hazard on ships secret for seven months

Whistleblower led to report on excessive noise levels

OTTAWA (CP) -- A new report says a senior federal Fisheries Department manager waited seven months to warn fishery officers in the Maritimes of a serious noise hazard aboard department vessels that could cause hearing loss.

Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday tabled a report in Parliament Thursday outlining the results of the investigation of wrongdoing launched after a whistleblower came forward.

"DFO knew that Fishery officers were exposed to excessive noise levels that could cause hearing loss, yet affected employees were not informed of the danger, were not given any directions or guidance to mitigate the danger, nor issued hearing-protection equipment in a timely manner," Friday said in his report.

The commissioner's report didn't define the precise source of the noise.

After receiving two Workers Compensation Board claims of hearing loss aboard conservation vessels in the Maritimes, the federal Fisheries Department hired a private consulting company to complete a noise assessment of four of its ships in the Maritimes.

In a November 2013 report, the company warned the department about noise hazards on the ships and recommended employees wear hearing protection.

But Jacinta Berthier, conservation and protection branch director of the federal Fisheries Department at the time, initially withheld the findings.

The report said Berthier chose not to tell employees about the noise hazard because she wanted to "address the results from a national perspective first based on her belief that all DFO employees across Canada could potentially be affected."

Three months later, an interim directive was provided to Berthier. Still, she did not share the noise assessment with fisheries officers.

It took another four months for her to authorize the release of the interim directive to employees in the Maritimes region, although no meaningful action was taken to finalize the draft interim directive during that time.

In fact, the report said it was only after a federal fisheries officer learned of the existence of the noise assessment and requested a copy that the interim directive was finalized and sent to employees 13 days later.

In all, it took seven months, until June 2014, for fishery officers to be told about the noise hazard and to be instructed to wear hearing protection.

In withholding the results of the noise assessment and waiting months to advise workers to wear hearing protection, Friday found in his report that Berthier "created a substantial and specific danger to the health and safety of DFO employees."

The report also said she committed a serious breach of the values and ethics code for the public sector.

In addition, the federal Fisheries Department conservation and protection branch in the Maritimes and the department's national headquarters failed to take appropriate and necessary action to respond to the health and safety issue, the report found.

"Under the circumstances, it is evident that this delay was caused by a lack of clear and concise direction as well as a lack of appropriate and timely follow-up action by management," Friday said in the report.

"Regardless of the director's rationale for wanting to establish a national directive, her decision to withhold the noise assessment from Maritime region employees who were at risk from the noise hazard, was contrary to her obligations as a manager."

Friday recommended that the department adopt a national approach to completing noise assessments on all its vessels, test the hearing of any employees that may have been affected and consider disciplinary measures given the nature of the wrongdoing.

The report contains a response by the DFO's deputy minister, Catherine Blewett, who accepted the recommendations, saying the department has done noise assessments on all its boats for five years, and communicated their results to all staff.

She said as well that "DFO has for decades issued two forms of ear protection to all fishery officers, a practise that is ongoing and will continue into the future."

A department spokesperson wasn't immediately available for comment.

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