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Every year in Canada, close to a thousand people head out to work and never come back.
Picture yourself as the spouse or child who receives the news that your partner or parent will not be coming home or will eventually die because of the work they’ve been doing. In 2017, 951 families had to face this painful reality. This included people working in various industries including construction, manufacturing, and government services, among others.
It’s especially heartbreaking when we consider that every work-related death, injury or illness could have been prevented.
Across Canada, four hundred of these fatalities were related to neoplasms, tumors and cancer; 333 were due to traumatic injuries and disorders; and over 150 were related to systemic diseases and disorders, according to the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC). According to the same AWCBC statistics, there were 1,061 lost time injuries/illnesses in Prince Edward Island in 2017.
Every person represented in those numbers fully expected to be able to make a living in relative security and assumed their workplace was safe – as most of us do. We assume governments and employers have all the necessary tools and resources to help make workplace deaths or injuries a thing of the past.
Sadly, that’s just not the case.
Instead, we continue to read headlines that another worker has died, barely able to imagine the anguish of loved ones asking themselves how this could happen.
Whether it’s a temporary worker employed at Fiera Foods killed last year – the fourth worker killed at a Fiera-affiliated company; or whether it’s three Canadian Pacific Railway employees killed when their freight train derailed east of Field, B.C. Eight other railway employees were also killed on the job just over a year before. The bad news keeps coming while change does not.
Canada’s unions worked hard to call on the federal government to do more to ensure the implementation of the Criminal Code provision known as “Westray.” This provision was legislated following the 1992 Westray mine disaster in which 26 miners lost their lives in an underground explosion. The law allows for corporations and employers to be convicted of criminal negligence when a worker is killed on the job, but has only led to a handful of charges since the law was enacted in 2004.
The trouble is, even while the federal government promised to do more, there is uneven and weak enforcement of Westray and uneven enforcement of workplace health and safety regulations designed to keep workers safe. There must be strong consequences for failure to uphold this duty – or we will continue to mourn the dead.
We also need further investment in proactive health and safety inspections, and the creation or strengthening of effective workplace health and safety committees who support training and provide resources.
In some provinces, we’re even seeing a rollback on the gains we’ve worked so hard to make to protect workers. In Ontario, Doug Ford’s Conservative government announced that the requirement for basic health and safety certification will be weakened from the current standard three-days of instructor-led, in-class training to a one-day on-line course.
Manitoba’s Conservative government introduced changes to its Workplace Safety and Health legislation, eliminating the Chief Prevention Officer position and adding a six-month deadline for workers to report complaints. It also provided new authority for a labour director to dismiss complaints without first starting an investigation. While it also proposes doubling the maximum fines for some offenses, critics including the Manitoba Federation of Labour argue that while increasing fines may appear to be an effective deterrent, maximum fines are rarely applied.
At the federal level, preventing workplace injuries and deaths requires reinstating the definition of ‘danger’ in the Canada Labour Code. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government unilaterally diluted it, without consulting workers or their representatives.
The right to refuse dangerous work is the last line of defence a worker has – often when every other tool has been unsuccessful. The federal government should return to the previous, stronger definition developed through tripartite consultation with workers and employers.
We’ve learned too many lessons and come too far in better understanding how to make workplaces safe. We owe it to the thousands of families who have already lost their loved ones to do better for today’s workers.
Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. April 28 (Sunday) is the annual National Day of Mourning – a day dedicated to remembering workers who have lost their lives or suffered injury or illness on the job.