Around the world, April 28th has been recognized as a Day of Mourning to honour workers who have lost their lives through traumatic incidents and/or occupational exposures, all of which were completely preventable. The Day of Mourning commemorates lives lost in the pursuit of modern comfort and convenience, and stands for worldwide efforts to create safety in the workplace.

Though there has been an improvement in safety compared to 20 years ago, the number of construction worker deaths in Ontario has increased, and is unacceptable. From 1997 up until the end of 2017, a total of 412 construction workers died due to workplace incidents, a number that would be significantly higher if we were to include deaths from occupational disease.

Every work-related death is avoidable. We have the knowledge. We have perfected technologies and protocols that work. The number of workers killed at work has risen sharply. That is not because of a lack of know-how. It is because of a lack of will.

Companies are judged on their annual accounts, not their actual safety performance. Corporate CEOs are richly and legally rewarded for asset stripping, job slashing, outsourcing, and profit-maximizing. Unfortunately, it takes nothing short of a major disaster to see workers’ health and safety generate a murmur of concern in most corporate boardrooms.

It is an old-fashioned abuse of power, rather than an accidental oversight or gap in knowledge, that makes many workplaces damaging places to be in. For certain employers, health and safety are distant strangers. They are more interested in creating an illusion of safety through the implementation of robust safety management programs on paper alone.

There needs to be a collective shift in how all of us view safety. Workplaces cannot become focused on fulfilling administrative requirements for the sake of keeping certification or winning awards.

The real goal must remain better safety outcomes in the workplace. The new approach should include: Incentivizing workers to report unsafe practices as a good way to start implementing a cultural shift towards safer outcomes. We give incentives for meeting production targets; why not to workers who report unsafe practices or hazards?

Better use and implementation by policy makers of coroners’ inquests’ recommendations. Coroners should be vested with authority to play a more direct role in advancing workplace safety. However, the most prevalent concern is that coroners’ recommendations are ineffective because the organizations and industries to which they are directed ignore them.

Involvement from police, Ministry of Labour officials, and crown prosecutors in robust safety management programs and the laying of criminal charges against senior company directors. In 2004, the federal government passed Bill C-45, the so-called “corporate killing law,” which made it possible to lay criminal charges and jail individuals for criminal negligence causing death in the workplace. Initially, it was thought that Bill C-45 would revolutionize workplace safety with the potential for unlimited fines and for senior company directors to be held criminally responsible when workers are killed. However, in the first 10 years of this law’s existence, there were very few charges and prosecutions. In recent years, criminal liability has become more than just a theoretical issue as criminal prosecutions have slightly increased. The point is not to jail employers, but to ensure worker safety. If jail time is what it takes, then so be it.

If these steps are taken by the appropriate actors, then workplace safety will significantly improve. Such changes would signal a strong commitment to safety that is commensurate with the breadth of the challenge before us.