Around the world, April 28th has been recognized as a Day of Mourning to honour those workers who have been killed, injured, or disabled on the job or who suffer from occupational disease. The Day of Mourning commemorates the lives that have been lost in the pursuit of modern comfort and convenience, serving to remind us of worldwide efforts to create safety in the workplace. 

We acknowledge that there has been an improvement in safety compared to 20 years ago. The average lost-time injury rate for Canada in 2015 was 1.5 per 100 workers. Despite the decrease in lost-time injury rates, deaths have not decreased. For instance, in Ontario the number of construction worker deaths hasn’t decreased despite all the extra government emphasis on safety. From 1997 up until the end of 2018, a total of 433 construction workers have died because of work-related incidents. That number would be higher if we were to include deaths from occupational disease.

Every work-related death is avoidable. We have the knowledge and the technology to make sure every worker comes home safely. The number of workers killed at their jobs has risen sharply. This 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 on their safety performance. Corporate CEOs are monetarily and legally rewarded for asset stripping, job slashing, outsourcing, and profit-taking. It takes nothing short of a major disaster, however, to see workers’ health and safety generate a murmur of concern in most corporate boardrooms.

For certain employers, health and safety is a distant stranger. They are more interested in creating an illusion of safety. This has been done by implementing what, on paper, appear to be robust safety management programs. There needs to be a collective shift in how all of us (unions included) view workplace safety. Workplaces cannot become focused on fulfilling administrative requirements for the sake of maintaining their certification or winning awards. 

Making better workplace safety outcomes a reality

Incentives

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Incentivizing workers to report unsafe practices would be a good way to start implementing a cultural shift towards safer outcomes. We give incentives for production — why not to workers who report unsafe practices or hazards?

Coroners

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We need better use and implementation by policy makers and organizations of coroners’ inquests/recommendations. Coroners are 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.

Criminal charges

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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 in cases of workplace deaths/injuries. 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. However, in the first 10 years there were few charges/prosecutions. In recent years, criminal liability has become more than just a theoretical issue as criminal prosecutions have slightly increased. Despite increases in the use of Bill C-45, the police need to become more involved in instances of serious workplace injuries and crown prosecutors need to become less reluctant to lay charges.