International Day of Mourning: Number of workplace deaths on the rise in Canada

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Last Thursday William Cerqueira fell to his death while working on a construction site in downtown Toronto. He fell from the 17th floor of a building on busy Adelaide Street, just west of Bay Street, while trying to strip a piece of plywood.

This tragedy will be repeated more than 1,000 times this year.

On April 28, the Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job, workers across the country will mourn for William Cerquiera and thousands of other workers that have been killed or injured on the job.

"It's a day that is recognized all over the world to pay tribute and respect to workers that have been killed and injured," explained Enzo Mancuso, who works for at the Toronto-based Workers Health and Safety Centre.

"We are going to mourn for the [workers who] have died, especially the brothers and sisters that have died in the construction industry -- it's been an especially devastating week for workers in the Toronto area," said Mancuso, noting that in addition to Cerquieira, two bricklayers and a carpenter have also been killed on the job in recent weeks.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), an average of four workers die each day in Canada, and that number has been steadily rising over the past 15 years. But the statistical accounts of work-related deaths tend to low-ball the numbers because they exclude occupational diseases, which do not cause immediate or fatal harm to a worker.

"It masks the problem and we don't get to deal with it," says Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) President Sid Ryan, "we need to be able to be honest about the number of people who are dying in our workplaces on an annual basis. And if [we] don't do that we are doing a great injustice to the families and workers that lost their lives. And future generations of workers who will continue to lose their lives."

First proposed by the CLC in 1984, the International Day of Mourning sadly maintains its relevance and urgency today.

According to Ryan, the efficacy of Canada's health and safety laws suffer from voluntary employer compliance and a major lack of monitoring and enforcement.

"The whole mindset around health and safety has got to change and that's why the OFL initiated a campaign, the title of it is "Kill a Worker Go to Jail," said Ryain, "We want employers to be held to account when workers are killed in their workplaces."

Thanks in large part to the pressures exerted by the labour movement, the government introduced a provision into the Criminal Code in 2004 which attributes criminal liability to corporations for workplace health and safety. Written in response to the devastating 1992 coalmine 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. Yet the Bill is hardly used to prosecute employers.

"Our goal is to increase awareness of the number of death and injuries that have been happening in workplaces," said Mancuso, "and we want to make sure that we don't forget those that have been injured. It's also not acceptable that a lot of injured workers live in poverty."

As rabble has reported, provincially run workers' compensation systems are often failing injured workers, who are often treated like criminal in what are supposed to be a no-fault compensation systems.

"Until it sinks in that employers better make sure the safety equipment is available, and that workers have been trained, and that if English is their second language, they receive some training in their native tongue, there's got to be a change in the way we look at health and safety," said Ryan.

Commemorative events will be held in cities across Canada on April 28. Find an event near you:


Ella Bedard is's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. 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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