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Workplace deaths in Canada are a national disgrace

April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. This is the first of a two-part series.

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 outpouring of respect and sympathy, however, is not accorded the thousand or more Canadian workers who are killed every year while at work. Their lives are not considered as precious, nor their services as vital, as those of the police, so their deaths go unnoticed by all but their families, friends and co-workers. There is no public outcry that those responsible for their deaths 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 but unavoidable 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.

Unfortunately, despite this legislative achievement, avoidable 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 that have elapsed since Bill C-45 was passed. Many of these incidents have been investigated by the provincial Departments of Labour, but rarely by the police. No prison terms have been decreed. Occasionally fines have been imposed, but not nearly heavy enough to deter further fatal safety violations.

In short, an employer whose failure to keep workers 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.

Unrecorded, uncounted deaths not included

The approximate annual 1,000 workplace fatality statistics, though shocking on their own, cover only deaths reported by provincial Workers' Compensation Boards. 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.

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

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked 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.

Image: Flickr/OFL

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