Have you ever had a loved one killed or maimed on the job? What about a co-worker or someone you knew? It happened to me in the mid-1970s, when one of my bosses at a smelter where I worked in northern Ontario was killed on the job. Six months from retirement and a careless mistake cost him his life.
This April 28th – National Day of Mourning – it’s worth remembering that every day in Canada and other countries, thousands of employees go to work expecting to return home safely to their families. But the reality is that too many workers will never return to their loved ones, and multiple others’ lives will be changed forever, maimed by inexplicable unsafe workplace incidents that, for the most part, could have been prevented.
Consider these incidents: In 1992, 26 miners were killed at Westray Mines, a coal mine in Plymouth, N.S. . No one was charged despite known infractions by the owners. But public outcry and petitions brought about changes to Canada’s Criminal Code in 2004. Employers and others could finally be sent to jail for negligence causing serious injury or death in the workplace.
Canada has among the toughest workplace laws in the Western world, and over the past several years, negligent managers and supervisors have been receiving jail sentences or fined heavily.
Recently, the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team’s bus collided with a semi-trailer in Saskatchewan, where 16 members of the team, mostly teenagers, as well as the bus driver, were killed. While it was a devastating and tragic traffic accident, it was also a workplace incident as both the bus and truck driver were on the job.
In 1979, a train derailment in Mississauga, Ont., caused an entire city to be evacuated for a week. No one was hurt, but workers were exposed to unknown dangerous chemicals that were being hauled.
Public safety was front and centre. This incident brought about increased emergency procedures, detailed chemical cleanup and improved safety of rail cars.
Unfortunately, the major train derailment at Lac-Megantic, Que., that resulted in 47 deaths and decimated half the downtown some 34 years later show there’s still so much more work to do on workplace safety.
Other workplace incidents may not be at the top of the newscasts.
The fisherman who slips and hits his head working on a trawler who faces a lifetime of disability. The manufacturing employee working on a machine without proper guards whose limb gets caught and is now facing life with only one arm. The young temp worker whose hijab gets caught in a machine and strangles her to death. Unfortunately, many of these sorts of incidents are daily occurrences somewhere in the world.
A number of them have had a major impact on how the public views employers, employees and the legislative responsibility to keep employees safe at work.
Health and safety is everybody’s responsibility, and it’s this mantra that forms the Internal Responsibility System (IRS). IRS means that everyone in the workplace has a role to play in keeping workplaces safe and healthy.
Not only has Canada led the way on the legislative front, we commemorate the workers who have faced death on the job or life-altering events because of workplace incidents. April 28 is known as the Day of Mourning.
In 1984, labour unions in Sudbury, Ont., known as the Nickel Capital of the World, adopted this day to publicly acknowledge workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths.
On April 28, 1991, Canada as a nation officially marked its first National Day of Mourning for persons killed or injured in the workplace. Flags now fly at half-mast and ceremonies are held in recognition of senseless workplace deaths, illnesses that go undetected for years and injuries that change the lives of individuals and their families forever.
Since 1991, 100 other countries have also adopted the observance known widely as Workers’ Memorial Day and as International Workers’ Memorial Day by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Have we done enough? Clearly we have not.
The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) most recent statistics, for the year 2016, recorded 905 workplace deaths. Among those dead were six young workers aged 15 to 19 and another 20 workers aged 20 to 24.
Add to these fatalities the 241,508 claims accepted for lost time due to a work-related injury or disease, including 29,588 from workers aged 15 to 24 – and the fact that these statistics only include what’s reported to and accepted by compensation boards – and it’s safe to say that the total number of workers impacted is even higher.
What these numbers don’t show is just how many people are directly affected by workplace tragedies.
Each worker death has a profound impact on the loved ones, families, friends and co-workers they leave behind, changing all of their lives forever.
So on April 28 when you go to work or drive down the street and see the flags at half-mast, take a moment to remember those who have lost their lives on the job.
Health and safety is everybody’s responsibility and we still have a very long road ahead of us.