Why do we need safety legislation, anyway?

Getting the most from your safety program—part 2
July 3, 2017
Getting the most from your safety program—part 3
July 31, 2017

Why do we need safety legislation, anyway?

Last month, we asked some of the smartest minds in the industry, “Why did you get into safety?” Your answers, deeply personal and rooted in service, astounded and impressed us…and brought up even more questions! So this month, we’re curious about one of the big external factors that has shaped many of our decisions to serve in the safety industry—that is, what role has safety legislation played in our province and country over the years? How did it start, how does any one piece of legislation get traction, and what is its place on modern jobsites?

We’ve heard from many frontline workers and small business owners that enforced legislation interrupts productive and efficient work. On the other hand, we’ve also read the stats that suggest legislation protects thousands of Canadian lives per year. As with most things, the best solution is probably somewhere in the middle, but in the meantime, we wanted to know more. And just like last month, we were really surprised by what we found.

As it turns out, safety regulations (like your “Why I got into safety” stories from last month!) are almost always the result of personal experiences. In our industry, that often means tragedies have occurred, and we share them here not to judge the past, but in the spirit of remembering and honoring the lives that have been lost on the way to saving many more.

If you haven’t already read it, The Forgotten Story of the Radium Girls is an illuminating (and disturbing) peek into what happened to the young American women who took jobs in radium factories during World War I. They were told by their employers that using and ingesting radium wouldn’t be harmful, but when they started developing frightening symptoms (including literally glowing in the dark) and then dying by the dozens, employers went to great lengths to deny responsibility. The courage and determination of the radium girls to find justice and protect future generations led to the development of OSHA in the United States. According to the story linked above, “Before OSHA was set up, 14,000 people died on the job every year; today, it is just over 4,500.” That’s 9500 more people going home to their families every night!

In Canada, “until the early 20th century, employers were not responsible for providing compensation or care for injured workers unless the accident was deemed to be entirely the fault of the workplace.” It wasn’t until the Depression of the 1870s hit that any attention at all was paid to the working conditions of men, women, and children—all of whom were working longer hours for less money and without any protections in place for their health, safety, welfare, or access to compensation.

“In 1887, the Government of Canada struck the Royal Commission on the Relations of Capital and Labour in Canada to investigate the condition of working people across the Dominion. After documenting the testimonies of an estimated 1800 witnesses, the Commission concluded that there was a high level of injury among workers who experienced oppressive working conditions, and made several recommendations for improving OHS by establishing standards and mandating regular inspections, suggesting the creation of a system for compensating victims of industrial accidents regardless of who was at fault in the accident, and proposing that a labour bureau be created to oversee the development of OHS regulations.”

Today, safety legislation in Canada is largely under provincial jurisdiction, but something so horrific happens that federal legislation is proposed to prevent a recurrence. Many of us in the safety industry learn about one such incident, the 1992 Westray Mine disaster in Nova Scotia. Twenty-six young miners (the entire crew onsite at the time) were killed that May when a coal seam spit a jet of methane gas that somehow ignited, and the underground blast (described as “apocalyptic”) was strong enough to shake houses over a kilometre away. The known dangers of coal dust and underground mining, along with the workers’ previously expressed concerns for their safety, prompted a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice to determine in 1997 that the incident resulted from “incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness … and cynical indifference.” That ruling set the stage for the 2004 passing of Bill C-45, the Westray Bill, a federal piece of legislation that established new legal duties for workplace health and safety, and imposed serious penalties for violations that result in injuries or death. “Under the bill, the maximum penalty for the conviction of an individual found criminally negligent in the death of a worker is life in prison. The maximum penalty for criminally negligent injury to a worker is 10 years in prison. The maximum fine that can be levelled against a corporation? Unlimited.” [source]

And at home in Alberta, personal experiences continue to shape and influence our legislative processes, most recently exemplified in the fight for enhanced legislation to protect Alberta’s farm and ranch workers. Farmworkers’ Union of Alberta president Eric Musecamp became an unlikely activist in 2004 when he was fired from an agricultural job after offering hearing protection and dust masks to children working in the corn fields, and while his fight for Bill 6 has been highly controversial, recent headlines report that workers’ compensation claims have more than doubled in the year since the bill was passed.

Your turn to act

We don’t know what the future holds, nor what governing bodies’ “proper” role is in keeping people safe at work, but we do want to know more about the role legislation plays in your company’s safe work practices. Please share this one-question anonymous survey with your frontline workers—it won’t take more than a minute to fill out, and it’ll help us at Boreal better understand how to personalize our offerings for your needs. We’ll share the results (again, anonymously) in next month’s newsletter.

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