Recalling the Horror Part of Making Improvements

verntIn the first few days after the 1992 Westray Mine explosion, Westray miner and rescue team member Vern Theriault had the grim task of transporting bodies to the surface, but only after dark so that the dead miners would not be a spectacle for the media and others gathered at the site, including family members of the 26 who perished.

Twenty-six years after telling his story of post-traumatic stress on every anniversary of the disaster, Vern Theriault has written it all down in “Westray, My Journey from Darkness to Light”. The book recalls the lead-up to and the aftermath of an event that forever changed Vern Theriault and the way the law is expected to treat workplace fatalities.

Often with Vern’s participation, USW continues the Stop the Killing, Enforce the Law campaign to get better enforcement of what we call the Westray Law – Criminal Code amendments intended to hold companies criminally accountable for workplace death and injury.

The campaign, endorsed by municipalities across Canada, and acknowledged by federal, provincial and territorial justice ministers, is making baby steps but, as long as employers are still getting away with fines, the fight has to continue, say USW leaders.

“Every time a province elects a new government or a government appoints a new attorney-general, we must re-educate them on the need for training, protocols and the obligation to investigate workplace fatalities first as crime scenes before turning them over to ministries of labour and other regulators,” said USW National Director Ken Neumann.

In a memo earlier this year, District 3 Director Stephen Hunt noted some recent guilty verdicts against negligent employers. One was against Detour Gold, an Ontario mining company that failed to properly train a worker who died of acute cyanide poisoning.  In Stave Lake, B.C., a company was found guilty of negligence after a 22-year-old worker who received no formal training was killed when the mine dump truck she had been operating rolled and crushed her to death.          

In Quebec, a jail sentence of 18 months for manslaughter was recently handed down to a contractor after a worker was killed by the collapse of a trench he was in while working on a sewer line.

Each case sets a new bar for others. Steelworkers will build on these cases to ensure training for prosecutors in every province and territory. Without pressure from USW members across Canada, we know that workplace deaths will not get the law enforcement attention they deserve and Crown prosecutors will continue to dispatch cases.

Progress is being made with protocols on dealing with workplace incidents in several provinces.  In Newfoundland-Labrador, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's new involvement in investigating workplace deaths or serious injuries is said to mark a "significant difference" that could land employers and supervisors in jail if a workplace is found to be unsafe.

In an expression of national cooperation, the Calgary Police Service is working with the Constabulary so that the force will now start criminal investigations at the site of every incident, rather than securing the scene and handing things over to Occupational Health and Safety.

"We think we do have the responsibility to make sure we do the right thing here with regards to the Criminal Code," says Constabulary Chief Joe Boland. "So we're going to shift to make sure if there is criminal negligence involved, that we lay the appropriate charges.

"We'll also work with Occupational Health and Safety.  They will run a parallel investigation with us but we will no longer just turn the investigation immediately over to them."

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Justice is preparing a fact sheet on criminal investigations, which should be available later this year.

With his Westray memories and his story now out for everyone to read, Vern Theriault would certainly approve of these developments.

This article appears in the November 2018 edition of USW@Work.

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