Steve Kallies and Alex Hanson, vice-president and president of the United Steelworkers 9346, attended the November 3 Sparwood council meeting to ask for the district’s support in the national campaign for the proper enforcement of a workplace death law.
The law in question, the Westray Act, was named after the 1992 Westray coal mining disaster in Nova Scotia that killed 26 miners, after methane gas ignited and exploded.
The act was established in 2004 and imposes that anyone who has authority in the workplace and can direct another person to perform a task has a legal obligation to prevent bodily harm to that person. Should fatalities occur, that person must be held negligible.
The Steelworkers feel that the law has not been properly enforced and that workplace fatalities are still not being investigated through the lens of criminal accountability.
“Nearly 1000 people die a year as a result of their work either in the workplace or due to occupational disease … That is the worst record in the developed countries,” said Kallies.
The Steelworkers propose that the provincial and federal governments be urged to ensure that crown attorneys and police are properly educated and trained to apply the Westray amendments to the criminal code.
“Before we start sending people to jail, we need to educate workers [about the right to refuse unsafe work],” commented Coun. Sonny Saad.
Hanson acknowledged this but noted that in cases such as Westray, workers had the option to either work in unsafe conditions or not get paid, as that area was going through a depression and employment was scarce.
“The company was saying, ‘If you don’t like it here, you can quit,’ knowing it was a one-horse town. So people voluntarily gave up their right to refuse work because they had to choose between putting bread on the table and work,” said Hanson.
The goal, according to Hanson, is not to send people to jail, but to reinforce supervisors to make better, safer choices in the work environment and with machinery, or else they can be held accountable for their dangerous, unsafe choices.
“I think sometimes steelworkers and unions as a whole get cornered into saying we only care about the people we represent,” commented Kallies. “But this campaign is not a witch-hunt or [meant] to send people to jail. It’s just saying that we have great legislation in place and it should be utilized. We want to be a voice for working people across the country.”