After successfully lobbying for safer workplaces in the wake of the 1999 death of her 19-year-old son, Cindy Skanderberg is once more stepping into the advocate’s ring.
The province’s recent move to alter the rule that required one-to-one supervision of trades apprentices is "just horrible for the people of Manitoba," Skanderberg said Tuesday in an interview from Glenboro.
She remembers vividly the day her husband Bill slumped over after receiving the call from a doctor telling them their son Michael had died on the job.
"I saw my husband collapsed on the table. I thought he was having a heart attack. I thought Bill was dying. Then he said, ‘Mike’s dead.’ I said, ‘What do you mean Mike’s dead?’"
Michael was a labourer who’d been on the job for two months for Clearwater Electric in Winnipeg.
He was replacing the lighting system at a school in Beausejour when he was electrocuted. Unbeknownst to Michael, the wires in the fluorescent fixture he was working on in the school’s photocopying room were live.
The company did not employ proper safety procedures, lacked proper schematics for the school, and didn’t supervise its young helper properly. It was fined $27,500 for negligence but only paid a portion of it before closing up shop and relocating to Ontario.
The Skanderbergs spoke up publicly, advocating and battling for years after their son’s death to see Bill 14 (Electricians’ Licence Amendment Act) passed in 2006. The legislation disallowed helpers from performing tasks like the one that killed Michael Skanderberg, said Nancy Allan, who was the NDP minister of labour and immigration at the time.
"They had to be in an apprenticeship program and trained, and supervisions had to be one to one," Allan said Tuesday. "This is a very dangerous trade."
She recalled dedicating the legislation to Michael, who was killed on the job Dec. 8, 1999. "It was about having a safe work environment."
On Dec. 18, the province changed the Apprenticeship and Certification — General Regulation, to allow a 2:1 minimum ratio of apprentices to journeypersons in trades.
"This will enhance employers’ ability to grow their businesses through the apprenticeship system and help more apprentices reach certification to work in their chosen trades by giving them access to an eligible supervisor," a provincial spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.
Some other provinces allow a 2:1 ratio, and the Apprenticeship and Certification Board, made up of industry stakeholders, voted on the issue and recommended the province adopt it, the spokesperson said. "Employers are still responsible for ensuring that safe work conditions are met for all of their employees at all times, no matter the ratio."
The move has left the Skanderbergs incensed.
"I’m right back where I was in 1999," said Cindy Skanderberg, who’s prepared to battle again.
She is willing to share her most painful day as a mother as many times as needed to reverse the relaxed regulations.
"After every speech, you collapse. You have to retell that story over and over again: he’s thrown down with his heart exploding," she said. "One loud scream was heard."
Michael died instantly after receiving 347 volts, his mom said. The force of the shock was so strong it removed a contact lens. "Think of the impact of blowing the contact out of his eye."
Manitobans need to know the horrifying details of what can happen when "shoddy" businesses are allowed to cut corners to save money, she said.
Skanderberg has contacted her MLA, Cliff Cullen, who is also the Minister of Education, Premier Brian Pallister and Economic Development and Jobs Minister Ralph Eichler by email, asking them to reconsider the regulations.
"I’m angry this wound has been opened wide up," said Skanderberg, who refuses to accept workplace safety improvements backsliding now. "Someone is going to die. Is this government prepared for that? Is this the legacy they want?
"I will fight to my dying breath for my son and his legacy."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.