Annual ceremony remembers workers killed on the job

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Matt Gardner
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Left to right: Prince Albert and District Labour Council (PADLC) registrar Charlene Greyeyes and her daughter Monica light candles in memory of the 35 workers in Saskatchewan who died on the job in 2013 as PADLC president Craig Thebaud reads out the list of names and their causes of death.

The annual National Day of Mourning ceremony in Prince Albert took place on Monday evening at the Union Centre.

Prince Albert and District Labour Council president Craig Thebaud offered remarks for the somber occasion, which honoured workers who have been injured, killed or developed fatal workplace-related illnesses on the job.

“Despite all of our strong efforts, not enough has been done to stop preventable accidents,” Thebaud said.

“Here in Saskatchewan we’ve suffered the loss of 35 workers in 2013. These numbers are truly tragic, because behind the statistics are real people -- the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents, friends and co-workers of those who have died on the job.

“All of those people are terribly impacted by the loss of a loved one who went to work and never came home again.”

As Thebaud read out a list of names, ages and cause of death, a candle was lit for each of the workers in Saskatchewan who died in 2013 as a result of workplace injuries or occupational disease.

Among the 35 work-related fatalities in the province last year, 11 involved asbestos exposure and another 11 involved motor vehicle accidents.

Other deaths were attributed to falls, drowning, electrocution, heart attacks, falling through ice, being struck by vehicles and -- in the case of two firefighters -- cancer.

In his remarks, Thebaud decried the lax enforcement of federal laws that would prosecute companies found responsible for workplace-related deaths.

“Despite the passage of what we call the Westray Act -- federal changes to the Criminal Code in 2004 that allow criminal charges against corporations for negligence causing death -- there have been few prosecutions,” Thebaud said. “That has to change in order to stop workplace deaths

“That’s why here in Prince Albert, the labour council, the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions are all working with police, Crown prosecutors, workers’ safety organizations, law professors and others to properly use the existing laws, and it is up to the governments to insist on safer workplaces by enforcing the laws and using criminal prosecution to send a message that employer negligence must end.”

Yet Thebaud noted the ongoing prevalence of companies involved in workplace fatalities that end up paying fines rather than facing criminal prosecution.

Pointing to a recent example, he noted the 2012 sawmill explosion in Burns Lake, B.C. that killed two workers and injured 19 others.

We see this across Canada. Workers lose their lives on the job and the company pays a fine. That is totally unacceptable. Craig Thebaud

Earlier this year, the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch announced that it would not press criminal charges against the owners of the Babine Forest Products sawmill, instead ordering them to pay a $1 million fine.

“We see this across Canada,” Thebaud said. “Workers lose their lives on the job and the company pays a fine. That is totally unacceptable.”

The labour council president noted that by offering a set dollar figure as a penalty for companies deemed responsible for workplace deaths, businesses can do a cost-benefit analysis as to whether or not it is in their interest to enforce certain safety protocols.

“It’s time governments lived up to their responsibilities, and we intend to force them to do so … As we mourn those sadly lost to workplace accidents and illnesses, we also commit as your labour council to fight for justice and put an end to needless tragedies. It is time for fair and equal treatment before the law for workplace injuries and deaths.”

One way to reduce workplace fatalities, Thebaud suggested, might be providing added enforcement mechanisms for governments such as more occupational health and safety officers or greater penalties for employers found to be violating labour laws.

“Right now it’s more of a complaints-based system, and not everyone feels comfortable complaining,” he said.

The United Steelworkers, Thebaud noted, are currently running a national campaign calling for enforcement of the Westray Act.

“They’re calling on more criminal prosecutions and they think that’s the best way -- which it probably is, because then the people actually making the decisions are held personally accountable instead of their corporate shareholders paying a small fine, which amounts to perhaps little of their profit.”

Following the lighting of the memorial candles at Monday’s ceremony, attendees observed a moment of silence.

The ceremony ended with organizers playing a version of the song Working Man by Rita MacNeil and The Men of the Deep, a male choral ensemble comprised of coal miners. The song was dedicated to the victims of mining disasters in the town of Springhill, N.S.

Organizations: Prince Albert and District Labour Council, Prince Albert, Canadian Labour Congress B.C. Criminal Justice Branch Babine Forest Products

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Burns Lake, Canada Springhill

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