Tough on crime? Not when it comes to workplace deaths

At 5:18 am on Saturday, May 9, 1992 the Westray coal mine in Plymouth Nova Scotia exploded killing all 26 miners who were underground at the time. 15 bodies were eventually recovered but 11 still remain underground as the mine was sealed after repeated extraction attempts proved too dangerous. This tragic and preventable incident devastated the Atlantic communities where the miners and their families lived and these communities have never recovered.

The company that owned and operated the mine, Curragh Resources, knowingly ignored safety protocols and procedures, removed safety training and equipment and exhibited criminal negligence towards mines inspections even after several incidents of roof collapse prior to the horrific events of May 9th. After the incident several letters and statements from concerned union officials and politicians were shown to warn that unless immediate action was taken to address the high concentrations of coal dust something terrible would happen. Unfortunately all these warnings and indicators went unheeded or ignored by the company and disaster ensued.

Dozens of charges against the company, mine managers and owners were put forth by the crown in the aftermath of the disaster. All of these charges were eventually stayed or dropped for various reasons and the company owner and president even refused to even participate in the subsequent inquiry. Because of this injustice and failure of successful prosecution the Canadian labour movement through the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliates (USW had an organizing drive at the mine at the time of the disaster) lobbied and campaigned the Federal government to amend the criminal code of Canada and create provisions under it to be able to charge employers and managers that knowingly put their employees into deadly dangerous situations. This piece of legislation became known as Bill C-45 and was enacted as section 217.1 of the criminal code of Canada in 2003. It states: “Every one who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”

20 years after this tragic incident it is important to reflect on the impact that this disaster had, if the subsequent legislation is being used in a meaningful way and if Canadian workers are indeed any safer than they were 20 years ago?

This statistic helps put the situation into prospective. In 1993 there were 758 recognized workplace fatalities in Canada. In 2010 there were 1014 recognized workplace fatalities in Canada. Clearly our workplaces are not any safer than they were 20 years ago. In regards to the amendments of the criminal code and the provisions of Bill C-45 Canada has only had 6 prosecutions under this law.

In some instances, such as the death of USW member Lyle Hewer in November 2004 at the Weyerhaeuser mill in New Westminster, the RCMP actually said that criminal charges should be laid and the crown refused to prosecute even after the USW proved through private prosecution that there were grounds for charges of criminal negligence.

This week also marks the start of the inquest into the death of 3 workers at the A-1 Mushroom farm in Langley that also left two workers permanently in a vegetative state. The owners were fined $350,000.00 but no jail time. They will likely never pay these fines as they have claimed bankruptcy.

Laws are on as good as the paper that they are written on unless they are enforced and criminally negligent employers are charged as the intent of the legal changes made in the wake of the Westray disaster. To not do so is an insult to the memory of the 26 miners who died 20 years ago.

– Brian Campbell


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