Some flights at St. John's International Airport have been cancelled after two-thirds of fire hall staff went on leave due to concerns about what they say is a toxic workplace.
Chris Bussey, the regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, told CBC News that firefighters are complaining about harassment and bullying after bringing health and safety concerns to their employer.
"This is people that are genuinely concerned and have reached a point where they had nowhere else to turn," Bussey said.
He said six out of nine firefighters asked their family doctors to take them out of the workplace to "protect their psychological health and safety" at the end of last week, leaving just three to respond to potential emergencies.
Bussey noted airport firefighters require specialized training under international aviation regulations, which means staff can't be supplemented by the St. John's Regional Fire Department.
He said there's only one fighter with one crash truck currently serving the airport — a service level sufficient for small planes, like a Dash 8, but not for larger aircraft.
A spokesperson for the St. John's International Airport Authority confirmed operations have been affected by staffing levels.
"At the moment, SJIAA is unable to staff its fire hall at regulatory required staffing levels to maintain normal airport operations due to current fire hall staffing absences," said Lisa Bragg in a statement Monday afternoon.
Bragg confirmed the staffing issues have caused flight disruptions but wouldn't say how many flights have been cancelled or delayed. Bragg also didn't specifically address the toxic workplace claims made by the union.
"Passengers are asked to confirm upcoming travel plans directly with their respective airline as we work through this issue as a matter of priority," Bragg said.
'Shut up and keep working'
Bussey said problems between fire hall staff and management have been ongoing for the past five years and have led to an "erosion" of fire services.
In a statement Monday morning, the union said firefighters were told to "shut up and keep working" after reporting concerns about safety violations to management.
Bussey said he's tried to conact the airport authority's CEO, Peter Avery, multiple times but his calls haven't been returned.
In a tweet Monday, federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan said he's been speaking to Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra about the situation at the St. John's airport.
"We're on top of it," he said.
Bussey said firefighters have concerns about travellers' safety but didn't specify what those concerns were.
"I think what's happening here is the airport is playing a cost-benefit analysis and meeting the lowest point in the regulation so they can tick the box," he said.