“Mourn for the dead, fight for the living”
Every April 28, unions, workers, and organizations in over 100 countries remember workers who have died, were injured or made ill from workplace causes. We honour them by renewing our fight for the living.
In Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress first recognized this day 30 years ago. Although some workplace health and safety conditions have improved in some sectors, the number of fatal injuries and illnesses still remains shocking. In 2012, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board reported 292 workplace fatalities – almost one per day. In Canada as whole, a worker is every injured every nine seconds. More serious accidents resulting in time away from work occur every 19 seconds. Finally, and more tragically, each day in Canada three workers die from workplace accidents and diseases.
It is also important to recognize that the changing nature of work often assaults workers’ bodies in new and different ways resulting in invisible injuries, or illnesses that don’t appear for years. For example, illnesses and injuries, such as stress-related diseases and repetitive strain injuries often cause permanent debilitating effects on workers’ lives at work and at home. All too often, workers struggling with these conditions are forced to battle with a compensation system that seems intent on denying them compensation and that treats them as fakers, malingerers and cheaters.
The number of deaths from occupational illnesses is now three times greater than those resulting from traumatic injuries. In 2012, Ontario recorded 222 deaths from occupational illnesses and 70 as a result of traumatic injury. In Ontario, most frequently, death was caused by asbestos-related cancers (mesothelioma) and lung cancers. Asbestos-related disease has been killing workers for over 100 years and its deadly effects have been known for most of that time. Yet, today’s workers are still paying the price for asbestos exposures 20 to 30 years ago, and asbestos exposures continue today in workplaces where workers doing renovations, electrical work, maintenance and plumbing are often unaware of its presence. There is no reason to expect that the number of occupational illness fatalities will drop any time soon. We will continue to see deaths as a result of asbestos exposures far into the future.
Over the past two years, OPSEU, other unions and health and safety activists have watched carefully for signs of progress as the Ministry of Labour assumed its role as the head of health and safety prevention in the province. The Chief Prevention Officer (CPO) and the Prevention Council have now been in place for more than two years. A provincial health and safety strategy has been launched and various consultations have been completed or are underway. The worker and supervisor health and safety awareness training recommended by the 2010 Expert Advisory PaneI will become mandatory on July 1 and we are waiting to see a Regulation for mandatory Health and Safety Representative training.
While these initiatives may provide tools and resources for workplace parties to use to make health and safety improvements, it is critical for workers and unions to remember that occupational health and safety in Ontario occurs in the context of economic forces and pressures that negatively impact workplace health and safety conditions. For example, “The Better Business Climate Act,” introduced March 19, 2014 by Ontario’s provincial government will, if passed, compel government ministries to shed “regulatory burdens” and report on the reductions yearly. Such pressures to reduce so-called regulatory burdens make enacting new and needed Ergonomic Regulations—or any other health and safety regulations—even more remote.
The truth is that Ontario’s health and safety system that regularly teeter-totters its focus between enforcement activities and encouraging self-reliance of the workplace parties (the Internal Responsibility System), will not “do” health and safety for us. Throughout history, every improvement to health and safety law or regulation has been achieved only through the sweat of workers activism or by workers’ tragic injuries and deaths. Health and safety protections have never been handed to workers. And they will not be delivered now without the vigorous involvement and action of workers, unions, and active Health and Safety Representatives and Joint Health and Safety Committees.
The moral argument that workers’ lives and health should not depend on the strength of the economy or market forces gets some mileage each time a workplace death is featured in the news, but those sentiments soon get lost in a “business as usual” world and we’re soon all back to making the “business case” for health and safety improvements. The job ahead is for workers, activists and unions to join together to make workplace killing just as unacceptable and as just as public as deaths from drunk drivers or from exposure to cigarette smoke. As OPSEU members reflect on the tragic toll caused by occupational illnesses, injuries and fatalities on workers, their families, friends and colleagues, we re-dedicate our efforts to achieve healthier and safer workplaces not only for our members but for all workers in the province.
OPSEU urges all locals to mark April 28 as the National Day of Mourning, to remember workers who have died, and to renew the fight for the living.
Visit the Workers Health and Safety Centre (WHSC) website below to view Day of Mourning events across Ontario.