The Westray Mine disaster memorial. Credit: Nova Scotia Federation of Labour Credit: Nova Scotia Federation of Labour

Since the Westray amendments were passed in 2004 to strengthen the Criminal Code of Canada and hold corporations criminally liable in workplace injuries and fatalities, the number of incidents continue to occur at an alarming rate.

The Westray Law is named in memory of the Westray Mine disaster that took place in 1992 in Plymouth, NS. Twenty-six miners lost their lives after an explosion. Safety concerns were raised by workers, union officials and government inspectors prior to the explosion. While the mine’s owners were charged, no one was convicted.

The Westray Law was meant to ensure accountability in workplace related deaths and injuries.

Over the last two decades, about 20,000 Canadian workers lost their lives on the job and another tens of thousands of workers have suffered serious injuries or became ill on worksites. Under the Westray amendments, commonly known as Westray Law, there have only been nine prosecutions to date with little recourse for employers.

The United Steelworkers (USW) deemed this a historic failure.

“The number of fatalities each year remains relatively constant,” said the health, safety and environment coordinator at USW, Andy LaDouceur in an interview with

According to USW’s Corporate Criminal liability document, each year about 900 to 1,000 workers die from work-related causes in Canada.

“We’re not expecting there to be a negligence case in every workplace fatality or serious injury, but we would like to see every one of those be investigated to make the determination that there wasn’t any criminal negligence involved. That’s why we say that it has been a failures,” said LaDouceur.

Government failed to enforce Westray’s Law and protect workers

Steven Bittle is a professor in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa who researches corporate crimes relating to workplace health and safety, corporate manslaughter and corruption.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it’s useless and that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on—it’s been woefully under enforced. There’s been no market change in the number of annual workplace fatalities in the country,” said Bittle.

“We’ve seen many instances in which you would on the surface think that there was evidence to proceed with criminal cases, yet prosecutors don’t,” Bittle added.

Bittle said that there is a lack of political will to properly enforce Westray’s Law. The Liberal government first introduced the legislation, however there has been no progress made.

“That’s a political choice that they are making. I personally, in my own work, put a lot of fault at the foot of the federal government because it was their law that they created that is clearly not functioning, and yet they are silent on the matter,” said Bittle.

One issue that Bittle pointed out was in how the Westray Law is laid out. With smaller organizations where the employer is directly involved in day-to-day operations, it is much easier to trace the chain of command and assign liability. 

But in large corporate settings, there’s an added complexity with multiple decision-making parties—even though their decisions affect workplace health and safety, they are far more removed from incidents when they occur and holding corporate decision-makers accountable is more difficult.

With the added complications of finding individual accountability, there is very little incentive for Crown prosecutors to pursue criminal cases.

“In many instances, there’s a disincentive for Crown prosecutors to get caught up in long complex criminal cases. They perhaps don’t believe there’s a prospect for winning or for securing a conviction and so they take the non-criminal route,” said Bittle.

“I’m not suggesting that the Crown prosecutors aren’t doing their job—I’m saying that when they’re faced with making a decision, and they can more readily secure a prosecution under Provincial health and Safety regulations … then it makes sense from that perspective that they would take the other route,” said Bittle.

With limited time and resources, proving a criminal case against large multinational corporations can be difficult.

“A corporation might plead guilty to criminal negligence in certain instances, but again, that typically results in a fine and doesn’t ultimately hold anyone accountable in the first place,” said Bittle. 

Bittle added: “The argument is that the people who ultimately make the decision about how a company runs and benefit from it financially and personally, get to hide behind this thing called a corporation—and what does it mean to hold a company guilty for negligence in that respect?”

In the workplace, employers have responsibilities and obligations towards health and safety policy and procedures—it is mandated under the Part II of Canada Labour Code.

But LaDoucer added that when a workplace fatality occurs, companies would rather spend time denying negligence rather than addressing the root cause and implementing proper risk assessment.

“There are too many deals being made to escape prosecution, to reduce convictions—but where are the deals being made to save workers’ lives? To save workers’ from injuries?” said LaDouceur.

“That’s not the focus. If [companies are] not doing that and are saying safety is a number one priority, you’re not kidding anyone,” LaDouceur added.

National Day of Mourning

Like the Westray mine explosion, many workplace fatalities and injuries are preventable.

The company knew about the hazardous working conditions, but at all stages did nothing to prevent them. Methane built up to explosive levels due to poor ventilations and coal dust accumulated in the mines. Then a single spark ignited the gas.

But mining inspectors were aware of these hazardous conditions long before the Westray mine explosion. A year before, inspectors demanded the company produce a stone-dusting plan to address the coal-dust hazard. Inspectors then became aware of the high methane levels in March 1992. Another inspection took place in April 1992 and the coal dust issue was still there.

National Day of Mourning is dedicated to workers who lost their lives or were injured in the workplace—one thing that Bittle and LaDouceur expressed is that there needs to be a cultural shift in how society views these incidents.

“This idea that these are pure ‘accidents’ is a myth. That’s a strong cultural narrative … but when you look at the factors of these cases, you can see that there were more often than not, unnecessary risks taken with workers’ lives leading to negligence, leading to injury and death in the workplace,” said Bittle.

“These are mundane decision that get made in companies about how to organize workplaces in ways that are to the detriment of workers,” Bittle added.

LaDouceur noted that there’s more that needs to be done to protect workers. USW along with other unions and labour federations continue to lobby for decisive action.

In regard to Westray Law, they are asking for the appointment of dedicated investigators and prosecutors for workplace deaths, education and training for Crown attorneys, police and health and safety regulators to properly enforce the legislation, and mandatory procedures and protocols between all three parties in each jurisdiction.

“It is a day to recommit to the fight. Our fight needs to get better enforcement, not only of the Westray Law, but of our health and safety legislation. Get better protections for workers,” said LaDouceur. “What we need to focus on is speaking up, speaking out, demanding justice and our rights to be safe at work and go home in the same condition.”

Kiah Lucero smiling and holding a camera.

Kiah Lucero

Kiah Lucero is a multimedia journalist based out of Calgary, Alta. Back in April 2020, she completed her Bachelor of Communication, majoring in journalism from Mount Royal University. Her published work...