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Workers’ safety is a national disgrace

By: | April 27, 2017

Canada has more workplace injuries and deaths per capita than most other developed nations.

Ed Finn
The Nonagenarian’s Notebook

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April 28 marks the National Day of Mourning to commemorate the many thousands of workers who have been killed or injured on the job or die from exposure to occupational toxins. Photo: United Steelworkers / Flickr.

The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
                                                                 –Tacitus

Every time a police officer is killed on the job, it makes front page news. The funeral is attended by law enforcement officers from across the country. The bravery of the slain officer is extolled in newspaper editorials, and condolences for the family flood in from government and business leaders.

These tributes are well-deserved. The police protect us from criminals. It is only fitting that, when one of them is killed in our service, they should be publicly acclaimed and their sacrifice recognized. We want their slayers to be severely punished.

The same outpour of respect and sympathy, however, is not accorded the thousand or more Canadian workers who are killed every year while at work. Their jobs are not as estimable as those of the police, so their deaths go unnoticed by all but their families and friends. There is no public outcry that those responsible for their death be arrested, charged, and sentenced to prison terms.

On the contrary, because these fatalities occur in Canada’s offices and factories, mines and forests, they are shrugged off as a regrettable cost of doing business. If anyone is blamed, it is often the victims themselves, because they were allegedly “careless” or “reckless.” Rarely are their high-salaried bosses ever held accountable, much less the owners and big shareholders in their secluded mansions.

Most Canadians remain unaware that a workplace death or injury is a criminal offence if it is caused by managerial dereliction. And indeed most such “accidents” are attributable to unsafe working conditions, faulty equipment or practices, or to a lack of training.

Approximately 1,000 Canadians are killed on the job every year, and approximately another million injured. To assume, as many do, that the managers and chief executives are completely blameless is absurd and insupportable. When “accidents” occur that are clearly due to managerial nonfeasance, the employer should be held legally accountable — and there is a law that says so.

Bill C-45

The law that imposes a responsibility on senior corporate officers to protect their employees from bodily harm was passed in Parliament in 2004. It took the form of an amendment to the federal Criminal Code, and it won the unanimous support of MPs of all the political parties.

Bill C-45 became law after years of lobbying by unions and the families of the 26 miners killed in 1992 in the Westray mine disaster in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. They died from an explosion ignited by the leakage of deadly methane gas that the mining company had failed to control. A subsequent inquiry found the company culpable, and urged that such unpardonable corporate malfeasance be criminalized, as it was 12 years later.

An employer whose failure to keep a worker from harm results in their death is still being treated as a safety shirker, not as a criminal.

Unfortunately, despite this legislative achievement, workplace deaths continue unabated. Another thousand or so Canadians have continued to be killed on the job, and another million injured, in each of the 13 years since Bill C-45 was passed. Many of these incidents have been investigated by relevant government agencies, but rarely by the police. No prison terms have been decreed. Occasionally, fines have been imposed, but are not nearly heavy enough to deter further fatal safety violations.

In short, an employer whose failure to keep a worker from harm results in their death is still being treated as a safety shirker, not as a criminal. It’s as if Bill C-45 were never enacted. As with any other law, its effectiveness depends on its enforcement, which in this case is abysmally lacking.

The approximate 1,000 annual workplace fatalities statistics, though shocking on their own, cover only deaths reported by provincial Workers’ Compensation Boards (WCBs). The deaths of workers in occupations not covered by WCBs are not included. For example, in a recent year, 22 workers were killed on farms in Alberta, but, since they didn’t come under WCB jurisdiction, their deaths went unrecorded.

Then there are the uncounted deaths and disabilities caused by exposure to toxic substances in the workplace. The long, lingering deaths suffered by coal miners from inhaling coal dust (“black-lung disease”) and by workers in asbestos mines and factories (mesothelioma) are well known. But the long-term effects of exposure to other deadly metals and chemicals are difficult to trace conclusively to the victims’ occupations, so their employers can usually escape blame.

Dr. Allen Kraut, a specialist in internal medicine in Winnipeg, has estimated that at least 3,000 and possibly as many as 6,000 Canadians die each year from diseases incurred on the job.

A national disgrace

To put it mildly, the lack of safety in Canada’s workplaces is a national – and international – disgrace.

Many of our industries neglect safety training, skimp on safety equipment, and keep employees unaware of the danger of new chemicals. In the fiercely competitive world of globalization, they will put the maximization of profits ahead of the “costly” provision of safe workplaces – as long as they can get away with it.

Our governments, too, have given on-the-job safety an inexcusably low priority. They’ve beefed up work safety rules, given workers the right to refuse dangerous duties, the right to sit on industrial health and safety committees, and even the right to be informed about the dangers of any material they are obliged to handle.

But, as with Bill C-45, no such legal rights can be exercised without managerial retaliation, unless workplaces are regularly inspected and safety laws strictly enforced. And on that score, our federal and provincial governments have fallen shamefully short.

Without stringent government oversight, employers are left free to flout safety rules and regulations. They can maintain their profits-before-personnel policy with virtual impunity.

International comparisons

One way of comparing Canada’s atrocious work safety record with those of other countries is to calculate the number of annual workplace deaths per 100,000 workers in each country. This figure varies from year to year, but in Canada has been allowed to remain at the shockingly high rate of about 5 per 100,000 a year. It’s one of the worst national levels of workplace fatalities in the world.

In Europe, for example, this number averages out to just 1.5 per 100,000 fatalities annually, and in some European countries is even lower. In Britain, it’s at an astounding low of 0.46 — fewer than one death in 100,000. No wonder a recent survey found that most European workers “are confident their job does not put their health and safety at risk.”

Without stringent government oversight, employers are left free to flout safety rules and regulations.

Even the United States has fewer workplace fatalities than Canada – 3.38 per 100,000 workers.

Far more Canadian workers are killed on the job than in most other developed countries – as many as 10,000 of them over the past decade. If the essential safety conditions, rules, equipment and training had been provided, as they are in Europe, nearly all these fatalities could have been prevented.

Comparisons of this kind with other countries also rank Canada as one of the worst in the number of workplace injuries. The roughly one million Canadians who are injured on the job each year surpasses those injured in every country in Europe, even those with far larger populations.

In 2014, Germany, with a population of 80 million – three times more than Canada — had the highest job injury rate at 847,370. France (population 66 million) had the second highest at 724,662, and Italy (population 64 million) was third at 313,312. Britain (also 64 million) had 244,948 workplace injuries. The three Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway and Denmark – had a combined total of only 99,000 annual work injuries.

When these figures are translated into per-100,000 workers statistics, they expose just how horrendous the toll of workplace injuries in Canada really is, compared with most other developed nations.

Social and economic costs

Apart from the incalculable grief and loss inflicted on the families of workers killed or crippled on the job in Canada, work-related fatalities and injuries, directly and indirectly, impose upward of an estimated $20 billion a year on Canada’s economy. This huge sum includes lost production, WCB and insurance payments, and the increased cost of health care and rehabilitation. Over a 20-year period, these and other costs of our unsafe workplaces amount to a staggering $380 billion.

We can only imagine the benefits that would have been derived if even half this vast expenditure had been diverted instead into improving Canada’s social and economic systems. Poverty and homelessness could have been extensively reduced; medicare could have been extended to cover pharmaceutical, dental and vision coverage; public child care and pensions could have been more enhanced. And many thousands of Canadian families would not have suffered the heartbreaking loss of their beloved breadwinners.

Instead, the failure to reduce this workplace carnage has subjected Canada’s health care system to unnecessary additional medical and hospital costs that total upward of an estimated $2 billion a year. This is hardly surprising, when on any given day as many as 1,800 hospital beds are occupied by injured workers — a major, and avoidable, cause of hospital overcrowding and long waiting times.

Workers’ Mourning Day

On Friday, April 28, the National Day of Mourning will be observed, commemorating the many thousands of workers who have been killed or injured on the job or die from exposure to occupational toxins.

I find it bitterly ironic that this annual commemoration, which is now observed around the world, was originally inaugurated in this country by the Canadian Labour Congress in 1985. Five years later, the federal government passed the Workers’ Mourning Day Act, making April 28 a national day of remembrance.

As the originator of this “Labour Safety Day,” it might naturally be assumed that Canada would want to become a model of workplace safety for the rest of the world. Instead, we have done far less to protect our workers from harm, allowing them to be killed and injured in numbers that far exceed those in the 80 other countries that observe the Day of Mourning. Fortunately, for those countries’ workers, whether on a per capita or per-100,000 basis they have far fewer deaths and injuries to mourn than we do.

On April 28, our corporate and political leaders will piously proclaim their deep concern about occupational deaths and injuries. They will promise — as they have on every previous Day of Mourning — to redouble their efforts to protect workers from harm on the job.

As soon as the sun sets that day, however, they will disregard the indefensible lack of workplace safety until April 28 rolls around again in 2018. The toll of deaths and injuries in our factories, mines, forests, farms, offices and shops will remain as high as ever.

But so will the profits.

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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