COLUMN: Accountability for deaths and injuries at work

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Last October, a 54 year old was killed in a workplace accident while felling a tree in Dover Centre. 

In February of the same year, a 48 year old in Timmins was found dead underwater while working in a mine. 

The previous July, a 44 year old in Chatham was killed at work when he fell from an elevated platform. 

The Ministry of Labour is investigating all these workplace deaths. 

According to the Ministry of Labour statistics, between 2013 and 2019, there have consistently been more than 30 workplace fatalities every year. 

In Ontario, a workplace fatality or injury may lead to hefty fines for employers, and even criminal charges and jail sentences for bosses. The outrage over workplace fatalities and injuries has sparked a campaign called “Kill a Worker, Go to Jail”. 

In 2021, a Chatham greenhouse was fined $70,000 after a worker was critically injured. 

In another case called R v Metron, the employer was fined $750,000 when four workers were killed, and one seriously injured, after the collapse of faulty swing stage scaffold. 

In the case of R v. Detour Gold Corp., the employer was fined $1,400,000 after an employee of a gold mining corporation died from acute cyanide poisoning. 

On Christmas eve 2009, five workers fell a distance of 13 storeys, four of them were killed and another sustained serious injuries as a result. This became the infamous Kazenelson case where the project manager of the construction company was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for the negligence which led to these tragedies. This is a unique case, because the boss, in addition to the company, was punished for the injury and deaths. The law regarding criminal punishments of bosses was reinforced after the Westray Mine explosion that killed 26 miners in Nova Scotia in 1992. 

According to a United Steelworkers Legal Brief, since this law came into effect, criminal negligence charges in workplace fatalities and injuries have been made against 13 corporations and 17 individuals. However, only seven of these corporations and two of the individuals have been successfully prosecuted. 

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) outlines workplace safety requirements in order to prevent fatalities and injuries. It specifically outlines rules for employers, supervisors, and workers.  

Supervisors are required to ensure that workers use equipment and protective devices, work in a safe manner, advise workers of any potential danger to health and safety, and “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.” 

According to the law, a supervisor must be a “competent person,” which means, a person who:

  1. is qualified because of knowledge, training and experience to organize the work and its performance;
  2. is familiar with the law and the regulations that apply to the work; and
  3. has knowledge of any potential or actual danger to health or safety in the workplace. 

It is vital that supervisors meet all the legal requirements because it will mean the difference between life and death. 

Not every supervisor is considered competent. In the case of Hillis v. Boyko Rentals Ltd., despite having past experience, the supervisor was not competent because he was not familiar with the relevant law and had no actual knowledge of the dangers in the workplace. 

A competent supervisor is also required to supervise a construction project at all times when five or more workers are working at the same time. This is important in case a supervisor needs to leave the site for any reason. In such a case, they need to ensure their assistant, who must also be a “competent person,” takes over supervision.  

Certain industrial workplaces have special rules to ensure workers are further protected due to the high-hazard environment and trend in fatalities, including construction, mining, and industrial establishments. Common protections in these industries include the requirement to wear protective headwear at all times, and protective footwear with a box toe that would withstand at least 125 joules impact.

Fatalities in the workplace continue every year, but these are unacceptable.

We need consistent proactive measures in high-hazard workplaces in order to save lives. 

Workplace inspections are an important measure in prevention and enforcement of life saving protocols. Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. Furthermore, workers who have safety concerns or would like more information about their health and safety rights, can speak to their health and safety representative, their union, or contact the Ministry of Labour Health and Safety Contact Centre at 1-877-202-0008. 

 

  • The content in this article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind. Ilija Dimeski is an employment and human rights lawyer. The author would like to thank Megan Quinton, paralegal, for her research assistance for this article. Do you have a workplace issue or question about your rights at work? Write to us. Click here to begin.

 

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