A photo of a worker in a yellow hard hat. On the National Workers Day of Mourning, Canadians who died on the job are remembered.
A photo of a worker in a yellow hard hat. On the National Workers Day of Mourning, Canadians who died on the job are remembered. Credit: Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Every year on April 28, those who were injured or lost their lives in the work place are remembered as a part of the National Workers Day of Mourning.

Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) national office says that lack of enforcement of existing laws is one of the ongoing causes of workplace injury.

In an emailed statement to rabble.ca, he said:

“The greatest threat to workers’ health and safety simply remains the lack of enforcement of the laws we already have, and the lack of recognition of how much work can negatively impact the health and safety of workers. Hundreds of workplace related deaths and thousands of injures go unrecognized every year. While it has been an ongoing issue, COVID has really highlighted government inaction around enforcing laws that require employers to take all reasonable precautions to keep their workers safe. Additionally, the erosion of traditional employment relationships and the increase in casual and temporary work (through the gig or platform economy) means workers are not connected to their ‘employers’ who are then able to skirt all health and safety responsibilities.”

According to CUPE, nearly 1,000 Canadian workers die on the job every year. They note that this does not include those who’s claims were rejected by compensation boards.

According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) which tracks on-the-job fatalities and lost time due to work place injuries, 2020 – the year for which they have the most recent data – saw 921 Canadians die at work. And that’s just four fewer than the previous year which saw 925 deaths.

Safety regulations weakened in 2021

In a statement on the Workers Day of Mourning, the United Steel Workers (USW) highlighted how some provinces have made workplaces conditions less safe for some.

A statement from the United Steel Workers reads:

“A prime example are the changes enacted through Bill 59 in Quebec, which have weakened safeguards, diminished prevention initiatives and cut compensation for sick and injured workers. Our union fought back against these changes every step of the way … Similarly, the Alberta government recently stripped away workers’ safety rights through the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act. We must continue our work to strengthen health and safety provisions through collective bargaining to ensure workers are protected from governments who put employers ahead of workers.”

CUPE states that they too are seeing similar trends when it comes to regulations meant to keep their members safe.

“Unfortunately, for the past two years, health and safety committees have been under attack. CUPE members are reporting several reoccurring problems, from meetings being perpetually cancelled, to employers appointing union representatives and purposefully scuttling committee efforts,” reads a statement on CUPE’s national website.

Respiratory disease and cancers remain top hazard

The AWCBC continues to list respiratory diseases and cancers contracted from the workplace as the top cause of worker fatalities.

Of the 921 fatalities in 2020, 338 of them were caused by malignant neoplasms and tumours (cancers, carcinomas, sarcomas).

The top cause of a workplace related fatality was exposure to nonmetallic minerals excluding fuels. There were 360 Canadians who died in 2020 due to exposure to these materials in their workplace. The most common cause of death amongst Canadians in the workplace for years has been exposure to asbestos, a nonmetallic silicate mineral that saw widespread use in the 20th century in materials such as housing insulation and brake pads.

While most uses of asbestos are now banned, it continues to be a top workplace killer due to its carcinogenic properties which sometimes can take up to 50 years to develop from time of exposure.

Know your rights as a worker

As a part of their effort to ensure that no Canadian worker dies needlessly on the job, CUPE is reminding all workers on the Workers Day of Mourning of their rights which include:

  • The right to refuse work you believe is unsafe until an investigation can be carried out;
  • The right to participate in deciding what is safe in the workplace and to report hazards;
  • The right to information on any hazard in the workplace that may cause harm, and how to prevent that harm;
  • The right to be free from reprisal for carrying out any of the other rights or any other requirement of health and safety law.

Nick Seebruch

Nick Seebruch has been the editor of rabble.ca since April 2022. He believes that fearless independent journalism is key for the survival of a healthy democracy. An OCNA award-winning journalist, for...