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OPINION: Enforce, reinforce workplace safety laws 25 years after Westray

Marking the Day of Mourning for killed and injured workers: 'While not every workplace fatality is caused by employer negligence, health and safety advocates say every fatality must be treated as a potential crime, and we agree,' writes Danny Cavanagh of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.
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westray memorial
The Westray Miners Memorial in New Glasgow is a monument to the 26 men who died in the Westray coal mine explosion in May 1992. (KATHLEEN FLANAGAN)

By DANNY CAVANAGH

Throughout the world each day, thousands are diagnosed with a terminal illness, become disabled, are injured or die due to workplace conditions.

Each year, April 28 is recognized as the Day of Mourning — a tradition that began here in Canada. It is a day when unions, governments and businesses publicly acknowledge workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Many flags fly at half-mast to recognize the lives needlessly lost and the tremendous suffering of those who must cope in the wake of workplace tragedies. April 28 is also a day when together we renew our commitment to improving workplace health and safety rules and legislation to bring an end to such needless suffering.

This coming May 9 will mark 25 years since the Westray mine disaster in Plymouth.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, our affiliated unions and the Canadian Labour Congress are working together to ensure we never have another workplace disaster like Westray, in which 26 men lost their lives in a needless tragedy.

This year, we are asking the federal government to do more to enforce laws holding employers criminally accountable for workplace deaths and injuries. The call will be the focus of cross-Canada events marking today’s National Day of Mourning.

After Westray, many worked hard — including the miners’ families, unions and health and safety activists mostly led by a United Steelworkers campaign — and succeeded in having new Criminal Code provisions implemented in 2004, making it possible to prosecute employers for negligence that leads to workplace death and injury.

However, in the past 13 years, only four employers have been prosecuted under the Westray law. Too many workplace fatalities are never properly investigated and only a handful have resulted in criminal charges, and that needs to change. In Canada, roughly 1,000 workers die every year because something happened to them at work, and thousands more are seriously injured.

While not every workplace fatality is caused by employer negligence, health and safety advocates say every fatality must be treated as a potential crime, and we agree.

This year, we have been working with the Westray Families Group, the provincial government, the Workers’ Compensation Board and United Steelworkers’ Union and others.

Allen Martin is with the Westray Families Group. His brother, Glenn David Martin, was one of the 26 coal miners who was killed in the Westray explosion. Martin says the federal government has an opportunity to ensure that his brother and the 25 other miners did not die in vain that day.

“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 during a recent news conference in Ottawa.

Nova Scotia has a long history of mining disasters, and for many of us, having a family member killed at work is real. My grandfather was killed in the Stellarton mine in 1935, so I never knew the man, but his loss still echoes through the generations. My mother would talk about him, but because he died at work, his family suffered, and so did we because we never got to meet him.

In Nova Scotia, we saw 20 deaths in a workplace in 2016.

It’s a serious issue. It could be someone we worked with or someone we might have known who was killed at work. I have always had a personal interest in safety because of those tragedies in my own family.

I felt betrayed, and I know the pain and suffering a family goes through when it loses a loved one. I believe no worker should go to work and end up dead, injured or sick due to workplace conditions. Chances are that even if you haven't had a workplace accident or a close call personally, then you know someone who has.

An accident at work can happen to any one of us, and the effects can be devastating. The price in suffering, in change of work and lifestyle, is enormous.

The laws must be enforced. In Nova Scotia, we do have a special prosecutor, but fines and penalties need to be set higher. If the courts were to levy maximum fines and impose jail time, that would go a long way toward changing things.

True change will only happen if we work with all our partners at WCB, governments at all levels, and employers, with a view to altering mindsets. I am confident that any employer who has had to tell the family of an employee about a workplace tragedy would agree today. Don’t ever think it can’t happen — it happens every day to someone’s family.

Think about that.

Danny Cavanagh is president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.



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