·  Ottawa Citizen

The Body Count from Workplace Death Is Greater than Reported

The following op-ed column, co-authored by USW National Director Ken Neumann and author/academic Steven Bittle, was published by the Ottawa Citizen.

April 28 marks the annual Day of Mourning. Across the country and around the world, union members, politicians, workers and their families and loved ones will gather to pay homage to those killed or made sick at work.

While an important, yet somber occasion to “Mourn for the dead and fight for the living,” the Day of Mourning is also a frustrating event. At the end of the day, beyond the efforts of the dedicated individuals struggling for safer workplaces, nothing much changes. After all the expressions of sorrow and political promises to improve workers’ health and safety, the body count continues to rise, and most employers never face significant repercussions for taking serious risks with workers’ lives.

From our perspective there are at least three reasons why the Day of Mourning must be more of a catalyst for truly transformative change.

First, the nature and extent of the problem is much greater – and thus more urgent – than we are led to believe. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC), in 2016 there were 905 worker fatalities across the country (with a 10-year average of 952 fatalities annually).

The problem is these data only report the number of deaths that were accepted for workers’ compensation; it is not a system for tracking all work-related deaths.

There is a long history of workers struggling for diseases to be included in compensation schemes – most notably in relation to various cancers caused by occupational exposures – and even if a disease is compensable, it does not ensure that a claim will be filed for every death from these diseases. Nor does it equate to an automatic acceptance upon submitting a claim.

In some cases, it may be too difficult to prove the legally required connection between the disease and the victim’s work. In other cases, a worker and/or their family might not recognize the disease as work-related and therefore not submit a claim. Such a situation is complicated by the long latency period for many diseases or by doctors who attribute someone’s disease to lifestyle choices instead of the working conditions they faced decades earlier.

Based on these and other factors, research from other jurisdictions demonstrates that, conservatively, the death toll is likely several-fold higher that what is reported through official statistics.

Second, the Westray Law has not been properly enforced. More than a decade ago, Parliament unanimously passed into law changes to the Criminal Code aimed at holding corporations to account for negligently killing workers and/or members of the public. The Westray Law, as it is commonly known, followed the devastating explosion at the Westray mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in 1992, which claimed the lives of 26 workers.

Public outrage over the fact that nobody was held criminally responsible for the disaster – despite evidence of dangerous and illegal working conditions – eventually led to the law’s enactment.

However, since the law came into force in 2004, few charges – approximately 17 – have been laid, with even fewer convictions/guilty pleas. As one scholar in the U.K. noted in the context of that country’s corporate manslaughter legislation, “justice is mocked if an important law goes unenforced.”

On last year’s Day of Mourning, the federal Liberal government publicly acknowledged the concern over lack of enforcement of the Westray Law and promised to investigate the matter. To our knowledge, there has been no progress made in this regard. In the meantime, workers continue to be killed on the job.

Finally, lurking behind all the promises to improve workers’ health and safety is an environment in which workers face increasing pressures to do more with less. Jobs have become increasingly part-time, precarious and much less likely to be unionized, and regulations for health and safety have been redefined as unnecessarily burdensome for business.

In opposition to these pressures is a considerable body of empirical research demonstrating that the safest workplaces are those with meaningful and effective collective representation – a union.

All of this adds up to a reality that stands in stark contrast to the promises of change, which will undoubtedly be overheard on this year’s Day of Mourning.

So this year, when a politician says that they stand in solidarity with workers in grieving for the loss of their colleagues, we must say in response that it is not enough.

If they really mean it, then tell us what you are going to do to stop the bloodshed, enforce the Westray Law and empower workers to have a meaningful say about their working conditions.

The best way to say sorry is to actually make change.


- Ken Neumann is the United Steelworkers National Director for Canada.
- Steven Bittle is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Still Dying for a Living: Corporate Criminal Liability after the Westray Mine Disaster (2012, UBC Press), along with numerous other publications dealing with corporate crime and corporate criminal liability.

View the column on the Ottawa Citizen website.

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