by Dallas G.V. Carpenter - 1997 Norm Quan Bursary Winner
The issue of occupational health and safety has traditionally taken a back seat to other labour concerns such as wage negotiations, pay equity, and employment security. Although these are very important issues that need constant attention and redressing, often they take away from concern for the health and safety of workers. Tragically, it is often not until a terrible accident has occurred that results in serious injury, or death, that the issue of occupational health and safety is raised by governments and the media. Organized labour unions, however, have devoted great amounts of time and money to bring about changes in labour agreements that hold employers responsible for the safety and well-being of their employees, as well as holding those employers accountable for unsafe working environments and the injuries and health risks incurred by workers while on the job.
Society, along with many of society's institutions, have adopted a very harsh and unforgiving attitude towards injured workers and, in the past, those who have worked in hazardous jobs. It was often widely believed that injuries and ailments incurred in the workplace were the nature of some jobs and could not be prevented. This lackadaisical attitude often deflected the blame for workplace hazards and accidents from employers to workers, who either did not have proper training for their jobs or were thought to be negligent while in the workplace. It was also believed that if workers wanted a safer working environment, it was up to them to improve their education and skills and move on to a safer career, although it was virtually impossible for most to do so because of a lack of money and mobility, and responsibilities to their families.
The problem of occupational health and safety has existed since private ownership and the industrial revolution began. Although standards have improved and governments have set policies to give greater protection to employees while on the job, the number of workplace hazards and incidents have remained a constant threat. From 1970 to 1995, the number of employees injured while on the job rose from 7,026 employees injured in 1970, to 12,102 employees injured in 19951. Yet, during that time, as the size of the workforce grew, the incidents of injuries per 100,000 workers dropped from a high of 12.7 in 1974, to a low of 6.8 in 19952. Also, fatalities while on the job per 100,000 workers dropped from a high of 17.4 in 1974 to a low of 6.4 in 1995.3.
Although encouraging, these numbers do not provide an actual account for the number of people injured and killed on the job because of a growing workplace. In all actuality, over 820,000 work-related injuries occur in Canada every year, and over 700 of those injuries are fatal. This does not reflect, however, dangerous conditions that, although not posing any immediate harm to workers, cause delayed health risks that culminate into painful and debilitating diseases and other health disorders years or decades later, often causing these workers much pain and suffering, along with causing strain on Canada's health care system.
Workplace injuries and deaths also pose a great cost to the Canadian economy, which is in a fragile state to begin with. It is estimated that the injuries and deaths incurred on the job costs Canadian taxpayers $10 billion annually.4 Because of unsafe working conditions, inadequate training by employers, and lax regulations that are not enforced, the economic impacts are tremendous. Every work-related accident victim in Canada is entitled to compensation that averages $6,000.00 per worker.' And, for every minute of work in Canada, taxpayers spend $82,500.00 in workers' compensation for accident victims.6 These costs include both direct costs (medical aid for victims, hospitalization, rehabilitation, funerals, and compensation for lost earnings), and indirect costs (damage to equipment, wages paid to non-productive or injured workers, loss of productivity due to plant shutdowns, lowered employee morale, cost of replacement staff, and legal expenses).7
But the greatest cost, of course, is the human cost, both of the injured and deceased workers and to the families of the victims. In a report by Human Resources and Development, it was estimated that "one Canadian worker out of 15 was injured at work every 8.7 seconds of time worked, and one worker out of 29 was severely injured enough to miss at least one day of work."8 In industries under federal jurisdiction, it was reported that the most hazardous occupations in 1995 were air transport, interprovincial road transport, and the federal public service. which accounted for over 43.5% of the occupational injuries and fatalities.9 These occupational injuries bring an enormous impact on those injured, with the loss of physical capabilities, loss of limbs, loss of a steady pay cheque, potential loss of a job, and physical and mental anguish that accompanies such injuries. The families of those who are injured or killed in the workplace also suffer greatly due to the rehabilitation of family members, the loss of income, and most disturbing, the loss of a family member.
There has been much attention given to the issue of occupational health and safety in the past 50 years, especially by governments, and increasingly so in the past 25 years. Government regulations regarding safety in the workplace, particularly in industrial standards, have been virtually nonexistent On top of the problem of lax safety standards has been the refusal or inability of various governments and government agencies to enforce the regulations. This inaction has led to much of the unsafe working conditions and practices that have led to many injuries, diseases, and deaths.
By leaving the safety of workers up to the employers, it has led to employers and companies cutting costs and increasing profit at the expense of the workers' well-being. Examples of unsafe working conditions are numerous: Inhalation of coal dust, which causes a disease known as "black lung"; unguarded, improperly maintained machinery leading to serious injuries and death; oil drilling accidents that are caused by improper or inadequate rig maintenance; and construction site incidents caused by the collapse of scaffolding, design faults, and the falling of equipment and materials.10 Added on top of these is stress in the workplace, which includes physical stress heat or cold), chemical stresses (ammonia or carbon monoxide exposure), and emotional stresses (unfair treatment by a supervisor).11
More recently, deaths of workers in the Westray Mine disaster of 1992 and the recent deaths of workers in local potash mines near Saskatoon, has led to increasing attention in the media for harsher regulations regarding health and safety. The death rates of occupational accidents have also grabbed much public alarm:
Occupational death remains the third leading cause of death in Canada, following heart disease and cancer, and twice as common as motor vehicle death. You are 18 times more likely to die from work than from criminal murder, and 28 times more Likely to meet with violence from work than from criminal assault.12
The pressure on governments has resulted in regulations such as the Canadian Labour Code, which was brought about in large part from lobbying efforts of unions. The Labour Code is designed to protect workers and maintain their rights while on the job. Included in the legislation is:
The right to know about Known or foreseeable hazards in the workplace; the right to participate in identifying and resolving job-related safety and health problems; and the right to refuse dangerous work if the employee has reasonable cause to believe that a situation constitutes a danger to him/herself or to another employee.l3
Another large, encompassing program the government has legislated has been workers' compensation, designed to keep workers livelihoods and incomes in order while recovering or after becoming unable to work due to injury. In Canada, injured workers are compensated through the publicly-funded Workers' Compensation Boards, which insure workers for most time loss and injuries received in the workplace. Recently, American private insurance companies have been lobbying to take over Canada's Workers' Compensation system where they would introduce new criteria for receiving benefits.14 But, thanks to the efforts of unions such as the Canadian Auto Workers, we have pushed off the advances of privatization of our Workers' Compensation Boards.
Workers' compensation and programs carried out such as safety awards, put the onus for workplace safety on workers, rather than employers. Safety awards are handed out to workers who have acted safely while on the job, and have shifted the focus away from the employer to provide safety training and a healthy work environment.15 Workers' compensation puts the blame on workers as well for being unsafe and causing accidents, which invariably lead to plant shutdowns and other employees being affected. Penalties against employers for unsafe working conditions are often overlooked due to this, while it is felt that the problem is solved due to workers' compensation. Labour unions have ensured that employer responsibility is not overlooked and that all workplace accidents, regardless of severity, are investigated fully and the proper penalties are handed out.
Unions, in their efforts to get increased attention to occupational health and safety, have also garnered attention towards less obvious ailments that are attributable to constant exposure to harmful conditions in the workplace environment. Workplace pollution, such as the Inhalation of toxic gases or exposure to poisonous substances (such as lead) may not impact workers immediately, but may, and often do, lead to long-term diseases later in a worker's life. This is particularly disturbing considering workers should be enjoying their retirements, not having to deal with debilitating diseases.
Another unseen hazard that unions have tried to bring to the forefront is that of occupational stress. Stress on the job, such as a demanding superior or extreme working conditions, can lead to many varying reactions: increased blood pressure, faster blood clotting, increased stomach acids, and a higher chance of more serious ailments such as ulcers and heart disease. Unions have brought to light this serious problem and offered many suggestions and regulations, such as having the work area well lit, slowing down the pace of production, ensuring new employees get proper training, and keeping a closer track of supervisors who are unreasonable towards employees.l6 By holding employers accountable for safer working environments, unions have protected the safety of workers and provided them with healthy futures.
Rehabilitation is another issue given much attention by unions. Unions have supported the rehabilitation of workers who were guaranteed a job when ready to return, and have fought for full benefits for injured workers while in rehabilitation. Yet, a larger problem has been the rehabilitation of disabled workers who have lost the use of a limb, or who have lost feeling or mobility due to a workplace mishap. One of the issues pushed for by unions is to make the workplace accessible for disabled workers. Also, a concern of unions is the returning to the workplace of disabled workers and helping them adjust to new working conditions, plus helping them gain confidence to return. Unions have also insured that employers make the transition to the workplace easier for disabled workers, and have fought to make sure there is a job for a worker to be placed into, even if their previous job is unable to suit their new needs and requirements.17
Unions have also had a large role in the education of workers, both in workplace safety and in knowing their rights within the workplace. The push for proper education and training of workers ensures that employers provide these services, which protects the health and well-being of workers while on the job and in the future.