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Unions, activists, politicians honour workers killed on the job

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It was the annual day of mourning for workers killed through accidents or illnesses on the job.

Larry Sefton Park was cordoned off using crime-scene tape. The words ‘Police Line Do Not Cross’ had been replaced with hundreds of x-ray photos of broken hands, shoulders, arms, ribs and legs.

Broken bones. Shattered lives. 

Shortly before noon on Friday the flags flapped in the wind at the park, located just behind City Hall, named after the former union leader. Union flags. Lots of them. Steelworkers. Ontario Nurses Association. CUPE Ontario. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

Some workers wore construction hats and orange vests. Others wore black arm bands. 

A few politicians had black ribbons pinned to their jackets with a printed message: Fight for the Living! Mourn for the Dead.

Several people carried signs that read “Kill a Worker. Go to Jail.” 

Even though the Criminal Code of Canada was amended ten years ago, holding employers criminally liable when their negligence causes the death or serious injury of an worker, not one Ontario employer representative has ever faced a personal criminal conviction.

Last year, 298 workers died in Ontario workplaces. In the last decade, 3,718 workers.

Remember the Canary. 

That was the message from CUPE Ontario. In the past, the canary was the only safeguard miners had against danger in the workplace. If the canary died, it was a signal to get out of the mines quickly.

Today, employee health and safety committees have replaced the canary, providing a voice for workers on health and safety matters.

And for more than 25 years, the Workers Health & Safety Centre has supported the efforts of workplace representatives in their pursuit of hazard-free workplaces, including answering health and safety concerns over the phone to the development and delivery of occupational health and safety training.

“So that the fight for the living goes on every day and every workplace that we can put it into,” said Tom Parkin, Managing Director, Workers Health and Safety Centre.

“So we can have less hazards, less deaths, less injuries.”

The annual day of mourning was started by the Canadian labour movement. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) officially declared it an annual day of remembrance in 1985 and it’s now observed in over 80 countries around the world. April 28 was chosen because on that day in 1914, the Workers Compensation Act received third reading.

This year’s ceremony was held on April 26, a weekday, so more workers could get involved with the event.

“This past week we lost over 300 people in Bangladesh at a garment factory,” said Marie Clarke-Walker, Executive Vice-President, CLC.

“When we mourn, we mourn for workers right across the world.”

On Wednesday, a building collapsed in what was described as the worst ever disaster in the Bangladesh garment industry. In November, a fire at a factory nearby killed 112 people.

In Canada, an average of 980 workers die each year.

“That means each week close to 20 workers don’t get home to their families,” said Walker.

In 2011, 919 workplace deaths were recorded in Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. This represents more than 2.6 deaths every single day.

In the nineteen year period from 1993 to 2011, 17,062 people lost their lives due to work-related causes (an average of 898 deaths per year).

“We have needlessly lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends and co-workers all of whom should be with us, alive and well today.”

The annual day of remembrance isn’t only a day to honour the dead, injured and ill. It’s also a time for workers and employers to renew their commitment to health and safety in the workplace.

“Unfortunately, construction workers still work in an industry where (some) out of fear for their jobs will suffer in silence when injured,” said Jeff Irons, IBEW, Local 353.

“They won’t report an accident and turn a blind eye to safety hazards because they don’t want to be labelled as a troublemaker.”

Irons said he’s a troublemaker.

“And I’ll always be a troublemaker,” he said. “This culture of fear must end.”

So injured workers like Beryl Brown won’t have to go through the mental and physical pain and anguish of a workplace injury.

“Something that could have been prevented in many cases if the proper health and safety measures were in place,” said Brown, a member of the Bright Lights Injured Workers Group.

“Why are they not listening to our stories and our pleas for a safe work environment? Why are they not implementing the relevant regulations?”

In 2012, a CUPE Local 79 member suffered a heart attack and died at work on Christmas Eve while cleaning Metro Hall.

“He died alone and was not discovered for hours,” said Nancy Murphy, 1st Vice President, CUPE Local 79.

“The working life of a cleaner is a hard one.”

Last year, many City of Toronto cleaners lost their job when the City decided to contract out cleaning jobs. Others live in constant fear they’ll be the next ones to go.

“We’ll never know how much stress he was under as a result of what was happening in his workplace,” said Murphy.

NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan knows all too well the impact a workplace injury can have on a worker and their family.

Thirty years ago, while Rathika, her sisters and her mother were stuck in a war-torn country, her father was working in Canada with the hopes of bringing the rest of his family here too.

But a workplace accident that left him with three crushed discs in his spine also left him permanently disabled.

“He really didn’t have much support,” said Sitsabaiesan. “The government didn’t really do much. The support he had was from family and community.”

From his sisters and brothers in the solidarity movement.

“(Who fought) to make the laws safer,” said Nancy Hutchison, Secretary Treasurer, Ontario Federation of Labour.  “To make the protections and put the enforcement in place to save us all.”

Rather than sitting idly by and allowing governments to put the austerity agenda and the interests of corporations ahead of human lives.

“Because if they silence the voices of unions and the health and safety that we push for,” said Hutchison. 

“We’re going to be standing here in this ‘crime scene’ talking about more workers that have been killed and injured on the job.”

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