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The Day of Mourning for injured and killed workers was invented by Canada. Now we're killing more workers than anyone.

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Image: Flickr/Joseph King

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

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 our fiercely competitive global market, 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. Oh yes, they've beefed up work safety rules, even given workers the right to refuse dangerous duties, the right to sit on industrial health and safety committees -- 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 five per 100,000 every 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 0.51 -- 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."

Even the United States has fewer workplace fatalities than Canada: 3.8-per-100,000 workers.

What this means is that 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 847,350. France (population 66 million) had the second highest at 724,682, 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, 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 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 have amounted 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 nearly $2 billion a year. Hardly surprising, when on any given day thousands of hospital beds across Canada could be occupied by injured workers.

I couldn't find the exact number, but a study funded by the Conference Board of Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada reported that 231,596 Canadians were hospitalized from injuries that year; that there were 3.5 million emergency room visits; and more than 60,000 people either partially or permanently disabled.

These figures, of course, cover injuries from all places and causes, including falls, car crashes, fires, drowning and violence. The number of work-related injuries was not specified for some reason, but it would be safe to estimate that, out of the 231,596 injuries that resulted in hospitalization, at least 15,000 occurred in the workplace. In any case, they are certainly a major cause of our overcrowded hospitals and long waiting times. 

Workers' Mourning Day

April 28 is the National Day of Mourning. It commemorates 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 their 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 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/Joseph King

Editor's note: The combined total annual work injuries in Sweden, Norway and Denmark is 99,000, not 99 as originally stated, and has been corrected in the article. rabble regrets the error.

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