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Soaring temperatures, broken air conditioner make for unbearable conditions at provincial court in St. John's

A sheriff walks past the COVID-19 screening booth at the entrance to Provincial Court in St. John's Thursday morning. As temperatures outside nearly reached 30 degrees Celsius this week, staff and those attending the court — as well as other offices and facilities in Atlantic Place — suffered in the heat, since the building's main air conditioning unit has been broken since June. It's expected to be repaired Friday.
A sheriff walks past the COVID-19 screening booth at the entrance to Provincial Court in St. John's Thursday morning. As temperatures outside nearly reached 30 degrees Celsius this week, staff and those attending the court — as well as other offices and facilities in Atlantic Place — suffered in the heat, since the building's main air conditioning unit has been broken since June. It's expected to be repaired Friday. - Tara Bradbury

In a small courtroom with a closed door, no windows and outside temperatures reaching nearly 30 C, focusing on the legal matter at hand may prove challenging, to say the least.

“I’m sorry, Your Honour, I’m just feeling a little woozy here,” one prosecutor told the judge at Provincial Court in St. John’s this week, briefly losing her train of thought while making submissions at an offender’s sentencing hearing.

Outside the courtroom, sheriffs staffing the court’s points of entry — wearing uniforms that include heavy Kevlar vests — used fans to try and cool down, as did court clerks and registry staff. In the court’s holding cells, where fewer inmates are escorted these days since many appear by video from prison as a COVID-19 protection measure, temperatures reportedly reached sweltering levels.

“My vest is warm enough in the winter, I can run out to get a coffee without a jacket. The 28 degrees I saw the other day was unbearable,” one sheriff told The Telegram.

Other offices and facilities in Atlantic Place, including Goodlife Fitness, one floor below the court, were experiencing similar conditions.

The building’s main air conditioning unit, broken since June 30, is expected to be repaired today.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice and Public Safety said Wednesday the department was aware of the temperature issue at Atlantic Place and had been in contact with Martek, the company that owns the building. Until the repairs are completed, the court has been exploring other options, she said. That includes continuing to hear some matters by phone or video instead of in person, which has been the case since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act sets out rules for situations where a thermal environment could pose a danger to workers and the court has been abiding by them, according to the spokeswoman.

“The court and other stakeholders have been employing strategies to assist staff in staying cool and comfortable. Such strategies include the use of fans, extra breaks, staggered worktimes and extra water,” she said. “We sympathize with our employees, stakeholders and clients during this uncomfortable time and appreciate their patience during what has been an unusually hot and humid few weeks in the region.”

Some managers have been trying to offer a bit of comfort by providing ice cream and freezies to staff, sheriffs said.

Representatives of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), the union to which sheriffs and other court staff belong, made a visit to Atlantic Place Thursday morning to assess the working conditions at provincial court. The union had only been alerted to the situation Wednesday afternoon, president Jerry Earle told The Telegram. There had been a miscommunication, with some frontline staff under the impression the union was already aware, he said.

“If something had come to light earlier, we would have been there sooner,” Earle said, adding occupational health and safety personnel and an officer specializing in thermal environments were among the visitors.

“We are really concerned. I’ve heard temperatures have reached above 30 degrees. I can’t imagine staff there, our members and other people like prosecutors and other lawyers and judges, trying to focus on a criminal matter in those conditions.”

By lunchtime, the court announced it would be closing for the afternoon due to the heat, postponing all scheduled matters to the same time on Friday.

Earle said he understands the court closure isn’t ideal given the backlog of cases already in the system is dealing due to the COVID-19 lockdown, but it was a necessary one.

Atlantic Place manager Brandon Copeland of Martek said the issue has been with the availability of two large parts needed to fix the air conditioning system in the nine-storey building. They aren’t available locally and must be shipped in from the United States, he explained, and there have been delays in that process.

One of the parts finally arrived Wednesday and the other was delivered Thursday morning, Copeland said.

The heat inside Atlantic Place hasn’t been a consistent issue since June, he noted, since a smaller system in the building has still been functioning. It’s when temperatures outside rise beyond the low 20s that the large air conditioner normally kicks in, and in this case, it couldn’t.

“We’ve counted 11 days when that’s happened,” Copeland said.

“Once we start the repairs, it should be back to normal within 24 hours, if everything has been diagnosed correctly and all goes smoothly. (Technicians) aren’t predicting any issues there. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Earle said NAPE staff will make sure they are apprised of the progress and if things aren’t fixed and temperatures stay where they are, they’ll advocate for a longer court closure if necessary.

“People are sometimes a bit passive, they might say it’s only going to be for a short while, what are people complaining about, but everybody is entitled to a safe workplace. That’s why the legislation exists,” he said. “We make no apologies: the health and safety of our members and the general public is our priority.”

tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

@tara_bradbury

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