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No Accident: Westray 20 Years After

Law to criminally prosecute corporations is in place, but two decades later Canada is no safer a place to work

by Miles Howe

Some of the draggermen tasked with recovering bodies after the May 9th, 1992, blast at the Westray mine. [Photo: Miles Howe]
Some of the draggermen tasked with recovering bodies after the May 9th, 1992, blast at the Westray mine. [Photo: Miles Howe]

New Glasgow, Nova Scotia – An early morning ceremony to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Westray mine disaster today paid respect to the 26 coal miners killed in the coal dust-sparked methane blast.

More than that though, it raised the difficult question of whether these preventable deaths have at all re-shaped the notion of safety in the workplace.

Westray retains a vital segment of the collective social consciousness, at once because it represents a cataclysmic, and unnecessary, disaster, and because it is a classic example of corporate profits taking complete and utter precedence over safety.

Before the mine was ever built, the Foord seam in Pictou County was well-recognized as one of, if not the, most dangerous coal seams to mine in Canada. After beginning operations, safety procedures and regulations were simply not followed.

The no-holds-barred quest for profits resulted in a dear cost in human life.

But Westray was no isolated incident, and as the push continues for increasingly-tight profit margins and ever-more inaccessible resources, more Westrays seem unfortunately destined to occur. If not here in Canada, then in more distant places where 26 dead on the job is unfortunately a common occurrence.

Statistically speaking, Canada is no safer a place to work than in 1992. This despite the enactment of federal bill C-45 in 2003, known as the “Westray bill.” The Westray bill was/is meant to enforce corporate liability and make it easier to hold companies criminally accountable for so-called accidents at the workplace.

But the bill, while hopeful on paper, has never resulted in a criminal conviction.

“I don't think [Bill C-45]'s been applied very well, obviously,” says Steven Hunt, Western Canadian Director for the United Steel Workers. “There's been a couple of plea bargains where fairly small employers have pleaded guilty to workplace acts that killed people, but obviously there's been some fairly egregious workplace fatalities, and most of them are preventable, and have gone under the radar. People continue to die, and these workers at Westray that lost their lives and eventually caused Parliament to enact a law...they seem to me to have died in vain right now.”

To Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), it is a question of a collective psychological re-tooling. While the legal ability to hold a corporation criminally accountable theoretically exists, it requires an as-yet untapped popular momentum to make it stick.

Georgetti sees reclaiming the word “accident” as being of particular importance to this initiative. To this effect, the CLC has prepared a new set of pamphlets meant to educate police and prosecutors on investigating and analyzing so-called accident scenes.

“[The CLC] think[s] the mentality should be that anytime a death occurs the police should investigate it as a crime scene primarily and then determine whether or not the death was accidental, rather than just assume that because it's a workplace death that it's accidental,” says Georgetti. “That's the problem, because the presumption always is that it's an accident, and accidents imply 'no fault'.

“Our compensation system was set up so that no blame would be laid in accidents and people would be properly compensated, and at the same time people wouldn't be fearful of the truth to prevent the accident from happening. So we now presume under our system that all accidents are accidental...but there is a culture of acceptance that this is just the normal outcome, of heavy industry especially, of the workplace, [that] deaths happen, and they're a consequence of the nature of the work we do in Canada.”

Until this mass awakening takes place, it seemingly falls to unions to provide a collective voice to workers, especially in potentially dangerous work environments. In the case of Westray, workers made overtures to the United Steel Workers prior to the May 9th blast in 1992, but were deterred from unionizing by management at the mine.

Ken Neumann, National Director of the United Steel Workers, and on hand at the memorial, remembers the instance well. Neumann agrees with Georgetti that a social shift is needed to hold corporations legally responsible for worker deaths.

“I truly believe, from my perspective, that some of it has to do with a culture shift. For years and years people looked at health and safety as being regulatory. So when you have the police or the attorney general, when you have a crime scene, when you have a shooting, they rope it off. They investigate it like it's a true crime. And I think that's the mentality shift [that is needed]. We're going to ask the federal government, along with the provincial governments and attorney generals, to provide further education, and to basically have some political will.

“[I]f you look at the country today, you're still killing over one thousand people per year. I get tired of notifying families that 'your loved one is not going to be home.' And I think that's the essence. To be [in New Glasgow], first of all is to remember the people that have lost their lives and the families. But also to [raise] awareness to society across the country that we really have to pay some attention to this, because that's not the kind of society that we believe in for Canada.”

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