Canada’s unions are marking the anniversary of the Westray mining disaster by calling for negligent employers to be held accountable in the event of a workplace death or injury, through effective enforcement of the Westray law.
The first known criminal probe into a COVID-19 workplace outbreak occurred this past January when the RCMP initiated a criminal investigation into the May 10, 2020 death of Benito Quesada, a worker at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta. The investigation commenced after a family member filed a complaint that the company was negligent in protecting its workers from COVID-19.
Charges have not been laid to date, but this is an important milestone in ensuring that when a worker is seriously injured or killed as a result of employer negligence it is treated as a crime, not an accident.
“We know that COVID-19 has spread in workplaces over the past year, and in some cases, workers weren’t properly protected,” said Hassan Yussuff, president of the CLC. “In the event of a worker’s serious injury or death, it is imperative that a full and thorough investigation be conducted to ensure that there was no negligence on the part of the employer.”
In May 1992, an early morning underground methane explosion killed all 26 miners working in the Westray coal mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.
Following the explosion, Justice K. Peter Richard, who led the public inquiry into the disaster, uncovered “a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect.” No one was ultimately held responsible for the miners’ deaths.
The United Steelworkers lobbied and won changes to the Criminal Code of Canada so that employers could be convicted of criminal negligence. Since the Westray Law was enacted in 2004, it has led to only a handful of criminal charges and only one prison sentence, despite thousands of workplace deaths and serious injuries every year.
In 2017, the CLC called on the federal government to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster by ensuring better enforcement of the Westray sections of the Criminal Code of Canada. That same year, the federal Ministers of Justice and Employment, Workforce Development and Labour issued a statement committing to “…working with the CLC and its members, employers and with our provincial and territorial partners to help ensure that the Westray provision is applied effectively.”
“Today, we remember those lost in the Westray mine disaster 29 years ago,” said Yussuff. “We honour their memory by continuing to fight for workers’ health and safety rights. We have worked, and we will continue to work with government representatives and other stakeholders to ensure that the Westray law is upheld and effectively enforced. Every worker deserves to go home safely at the end of each day.”