Worker deaths deserve criminal investigations, says OFL president Sid Ryan

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On Tuesday New Mex Canada Inc. was fined $250,000 and its two directors were given 25-day jail sentences after the Brampton furniture importer and retailer pleaded guilty to safety violations that led to the death of a warehouse worker.

The worker died on January 18, 2013, from a blunt force trauma to the head while working on a jerry-rigged forklift machine. An additional platform had been added to the machine, known as an order picker, without any guardrails. The worker, who likely fell to his death, was later found on the floor and pronounced dead.

After the fatality occurred, Ministry of Labour investigators found multiple violations of Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act at the New Mex warehouse. Workers said that they had not been provided with harnesses or fall protection equipment, and had not received any health and safety training. 

New Mex Directors Baldev Purba and Rajinder Saini pled guilty to the charges of workplace negligence, and will serve their jail time over a series of weekends.

While applauding the conviction, Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president Sid Ryan says that fatal accidents such as this one also need to be investigated by the police, and not just the Ministry of Labour. 

"We are very happy with this court decision. There is no question that workers and their families will sleep better tonight knowing that negligent bosses are finally going to jail," said Ryan. "However, this decision does not go far enough. This employer should be facing criminal charges in addition to Occupational Health and Safety violations."

In 2004 a provision was introduced into the Criminal Code attributing criminal liability to corporations for workplace health and safety. Written in response to the 1992 coal mine explosion that killed 26 men in Westray, Nova Scotia, Bill C-45 imposed serious penalties on companies and their representatives for Health and Safety violations that result in injuries or death. Though it took almost ten years to pass Bill C-45, more commonly known as the Westray Bill, it eventually received unanimous support from representatives of all parties in the House of Commons and the Senate.

Since 2008, there has been a 36 per cent increase in workplace deaths in Ontario. In 2013, 87 workers were killed on the job, and roughly 200 more died as a result of occupational disease. But despite the rising number of work-related deaths and injuries, Bill C-45 is rarely invoked.

"When there is a death in the workplace you should be investigating it as scrupulously as you would any death," said Ryan. "Dying on the job due to exposures or fatal accidents is simply unacceptable and when you put that on top of the 250,000 reported accidents every single year, year in and year out, clearly we have a problem in our workplaces in Ontario, and I dare say all across Canada, and its time we did something about it."

In 2009, the OFL launched its "Kill a Worker, Go to Jail" campaign in response to a tragic accident at a west Toronto high-rise that sent four men plummeting to their death on Christmas Eve. In that case, Metron Construction was found criminally culpable for the collapse of a swing stage and became the first company to receive a criminal conviction for workplace negligence.

On Tuesday, just a day after the New Mex verdict was announced, a Hamilton worker at Centura Tile was crushed to death by a rack of heavy tiles and cement bags. According to the Hamilton Spectator, a police spokesperson at the scene confirmed the fatality and said the cause of the accident remained under investigation.

However, Ryan thinks that the tragedy is unlikely to yield a criminal investigation:

"What happens is that the police show up and the Ministry of Labour shows up. The Ministry of Labour is looking at it from a different standard; they are looking at it in relation to the Health and Safety Act. The police are not aware that Bill C-45 gives them the right to lay criminal charges, they see the Ministry of Labour and take off. Therefore there's no criminal investigation. We have this statute on the books that no one is using."

Ryan says that even though the New Mex Directors have not been convicted under the Criminal Code, this week's hearing sends a clear message to employers.

"The important part is that the signal is going out loud and clear to CEOs, managers and frontline supervisors that if you are found negligent in the death of a worker you could in fact be incarcerated," said Ryan. "Sure we have the law on our side, but we hadn't had any examples that we could point to, certainly not in Ontario. Now we have a real live case." 

Ella Bedard is's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 

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