June 1 is Injured Workers Day.
It’s a day to recognize the human cost of workplace injuries. It’s a day to demand fair compensation from employers for those injuries. And it’s a day to think about how we, as a society, can prevent people from getting hurt on the job in the first place.
If you see a story about health and safety in the news, chances are it’s an industrial story – a man crushed on a construction site, or dead from lung disease after a life in the mines. These are terrible tragedies, and on April 28, the Day of Mourning, we remember them.
But many of the dangers we face on the job do not come from faulty equipment or dangerous chemicals. Sometimes, for OPSEU members, the real risks to our safety come from other people.
Don’t get me wrong: as public employees, we like working with people. We help them get through their days – whether they’re renewing a driver’s license or coping with a mental illness or learning how to walk after an accident. Sometimes we see people on their best days. But quite often, we see them on their worst days.
Public employees face more violence than most people realize. Obviously, correctional workers are often around people with violent histories. But given enough stress, on any given day, anyone can lash out. That’s why so many OPSEU members face violence on the job. In health care, in social services, at the LCBO, even doing a property inspection, a regular day can go wrong pretty fast.
Lately, our union has been talking a lot about violence in health care, and for good reason. OPSEU members are closely watching a case in Brockville, where Brockville Mental Health Centre is facing Ministry of Labour charges after a nurse there was stabbed repeatedly in 2014. At the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, OPSEU members have been attacked by patients too many times to count. I don’t blame the patients on the forensic mental health wards – they are, by court ruling, not responsible for their actions. But I do blame management.
I have never come across a workplace injury that could not have been prevented. But what I’ve seen, time and time again, is that for too many employers, workplace safety is a cost they aren’t willing to pay. They won’t pay to prevent injuries, and they won’t pay to compensate injured workers.
Under our current government, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is working to cut the cost of workplace injuries – for employers – by cutting compensation to injured workers. It has one goal in mind – to drive down the premiums employers pay. Twenty-five years ago, employers paid $3.20 for every $100 of payroll. Right now, premiums average about $2.46. But in 15 years, the WSIB says, premium rates will be in the range of $1.40 to $1.50.
This is dangerous. Cutting costs for employers will not help injured workers get the compensation they deserve, and it won’t motivate employers to create safer workplaces, either.
As with so many issues these days, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
But here’s the good news: injured workers are fighting back. Unions, labour councils, legal clinics, and organizations like the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups are speaking with one loud voice to tell employers and governments alike that workers’ rights to work safely, and be fairly compensated when injuries happen, are not up for negotiation. We are a movement, and we’re growing stronger.
This year, please attend an Injured Workers Day event near you.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas