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National Day of Mourning: A statement from OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas

Day of Mourning, April 28, Remember & Renew.

Tomorrow, Friday April 28, is Canada’s National Day of Mourning for those killed or injured, or who have acquired work-related illness while on the job. In towns and cities across the country, working people and local leaders will gather for a moment of silence to commemorate our late sisters and brothers.

It is the day when the House of Labour invites all Canadians to join with us to remember the needless deaths of working people who expected to return home safely after a day’s work but never did.

The numbers are staggering. In 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, 852 Canadians died on the job and a further 232,000 were injured, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. That this casualty toll is so enormous is inexcusable in a nation as educated and prosperous as ours. It means we must redouble our fight to strengthen safe and healthy conditions in all workplaces.

Tomorrow also marks, almost to the day, the 25th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster in Nova Scotia that claimed the lives of 26 workers. A public inquiry concluded these deaths were needless and that the mine’s owners had operated an unsafe enterprise.

Despite these tragedies, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that important changes have been made for which organized labour can take considerable credit.

We have stronger health and safety legislation that’s supposed to protect those in the workplace from harm, illness or death.

We have achieved some limited whistle-blowing legislation that’s intended to protect workers from reprisals when they discover and report hazardous conditions in the workplace.

Thanks to the efforts of labour, workers today are much more aware of health and safety standards in the workplace.

And we have legislation in place that, in theory at least, criminalizes employers who knowingly operate unsafe worksites – although I’m hard pressed to think of even one case where a CEO has gone to prison because a worker died unnecessarily under his watch. Employers who willfully disregard or ignore our health and safety rules must be punished to the full extent of the law.

I take considerable pride in OPSEU’s position on the frontlines for stronger workplace health and safety laws. Working with other progressive organizations, our union can point to a string of victories in the struggle to build safer workplaces – not just for unionized workers, but for all workers.

Our mental health division, for example, is demanding the provincial government tighten security measures inside psychiatric facilities as workers and clients alike are attacked and injured, almost on a daily basis somewhere in the province.

OPSEU represents almost 400 safety inspectors at the Ministry of Labour – a number that has remained about the same since 2004 despite an expanding economy and growing work force. They spend the majority of their time investigating death and injuries, and less and less time inspecting unsafe workplaces. Is it any wonder then why the number of deaths and injuries remain stubbornly high?

Janice Martell, a member of Local 604 in Elliott Lake, is a symbol of OPSEU’s grit and determination. Sister Janice founded the McIntyre Powder Project after her father and an estimated 20,000 other miners in northern Ontario became ill after inhaling aluminum dust – McIntyre Powder – every day for years before going into the mines. They were told the dust would protect them from harmful underground toxins; instead it has become a death sentence for some.

For decades, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has refused to compensate these miners for their illnesses, saying there was no link between the powder and later health problems, like cancer. Janice Martell has declared she won’t back down until the WSIB reverses itself. The government is listening to her.

We must treat health and safety in the workplace as a human right, and not simply a set of rules and regulations that too many employers choose to ignore. OPSEU will not rest until all workers and their families can feel safe and secure in their workplaces, without fear of death or harm.

In solidarity,
Warren (Smokey) Thomas