“Today, across Canada, politicians at ceremonies for the National Day of Mourning will be talking about the importance of safe workplaces. But kind words mean little unless they are matched by action. We need the government to take this obligation seriously.” — Elisabeth Ballermann, NUPGE Secretary-Treasurer.
Ottawa (27 April 2017) — Twenty five years after the Westray mine explosion, when corporate greed and appalling negligence led to the deaths of 26 workers, more must be done to enforce the laws holding employers criminally accountable for workplace death and injury. That’s the message the labour movement and families of workers killed on the job are delivering this year as they mark April 28, National Day of Mourning, for workers killed or injured on the job.
“Across Canada, politicians at ceremonies for the National Day of Mourning will be talking about the importance of safe workplaces. But kind words mean little unless they are matched by action. We need the government to take this obligation seriously,” said Elisabeth Ballermann, Secretary-Treasurer at the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
Only 4 employers prosecuted in 13 years
In 2004, the Criminal Code of Canada was changed so that employers could be prosecuted for negligence leading to workplace death and injury. Those changes are known as the Westray Law and came after years of hard work by the families of miners killed in the Westray mine and the United Steelworkers' (USW).
But since the changes to the Criminal Code took effect, only 4 employers have been prosecuted. During the same time period, over 12,000 Canadian workers have been killed on the job.
While not every workplace fatality is caused by employer negligence, health and safety advocates say every fatality must be treated as a potential crime.
Canadian Labour Congress launching online petition to demand better enforcement
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has launched an online petition demanding that the federal government act to ensure Criminal Code provisions to protect workers are enforced. You can sign the petition at RememberWestray.ca.
“When criminal negligence results in a worker’s death, it is a crime and should be treated that way,” said Ken Neumann, the United Steelworker's National Director for Canada.
Bringing reality home
Christian Bruneau’s son Olivier was killed by falling ice at an Ottawa construction site in 2016. Bruneau says better enforcement would have prevented his son’s death.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if the Westray Law was being effectively enforced, no worker would have been allowed into the pit where my son was killed,” said Bruneau. “The fear of going to jail would have outweighed the quest for profits.”
In the public services, workers are finding themselves facing increased violence on the job. From nursing homes to hospitals, addiction centres and prisons, frontline workers are being severely injured daily.
“Workers shouldn't go to their job in the morning worrying about what might happen to them during the day,” said Ballermann. “But these days, that worry is becoming the norm.”
After 25, years families of miners killed at Westray still have to push for action
Allen Martin’s brother, Glenn David Martin, was one of the 26 coal miners who lost their lives in the Westray mine explosion. He says the federal government has an opportunity to ensure that his brother — and the 25 other miners lost that day — did not die in vain.
“The Westray families don’t want to see anyone else suffering the way we have. We need the federal government to honour the memory of the men we lost by acting now to finally, and decisively, ensure enforcement of the law that is their legacy,” said Martin.
Violence on the job put workers in danger
There has been an increase in violence at work across sectors. Attacks on correctional officers are a regular occurance. Nurses, home and community care workers are on the frontline facing increased danger. Education workers and instructors are now dealing with increased anger and potential violence in college and universities. Domestic violence has also spilled over into the workplace impacting everyone's safety.
"There is no workplace that is immune from dangers," said Ballermann. "That's why we must work, in every way possible, to improve the heatlh and safety measures in all workplaces. Protection of workers should be on the minds of every employer and every level of government."
What’s needed to enforce the Westray Law
The CLC has identified 2 sets of actions that are necessary to enforce the Westray Law — an urgent action plan by federal, provincial and territorial governments and improving the federal government’s ability to enforce the law.
An urgent action plan developed by federal, provincial, and territorial governments must include:
- Training and directing Crown prosecutors to apply the Westray provisions of the Criminal Code;
- Appointing dedicated prosecutors for workplace health and safety fatalities, and training;
- Directing police to apply the Westray provisions of the Criminal Code;
- Ensuring regulators, police and Crown attorneys are coordinating;
- Health and safety regulators must be reaching out to police when Westray charges might be warranted.
The federal government also has a responsibility to get its own house in order by:
- training its own health and safety officers to view every workplace fatality under federal jurisdiction as a potential crime scene, which includes coordinating with police in their investigations; and
- ensuring the RCMP is trained and directed to consider the possibility of criminal negligence whenever a worker is killed or seriously injured on the job.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 370,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. ~ NUPGE