National Day of Mourning honours workers killed and hurt on the job

Calgary mom tearfully remembers teenaged son electrocuted while helping to erect a party tent

Julie Hamilton knows by heart how many days since her son Tim was killed in a workplace accident (13 years, nine months and 19 days) and how many other lives have been taken since that fateful Stampede night (1,654).

Yet she believes not enough is being done.

During the National Day of Mourning, an annual event to remember workers injured or killed on the job, she asked for stricter legislation and accountability for companies that "disregard" human life.

"What's really wrong is nothing has been done about it," she said.

On July 9, 1999, Tim Hamilton, 19, was setting up a tent for a Calgary Stampede event the next day when a metal pole struck an overhead power line.

The 14,400 volts of electricity killed Tim instantly, and left a co-worker with electrical burns to his feet and hands.

In the end, the party rental company he worked for was fined $100,000 and declared bankruptcy, while charges against the company hosting the event were stayed.

"The prosecutors, the Justice Department have to step up and say this is not going to happen anymore," Julie Hamilton said.

A ceremony was held near Balzac on Saturday afternoon to remember the 123 people killed in workplace-related circumstances, including nine people from Calgary.

Only 39 of those were killed in workplace accidents, 28 in motor vehicle accidents and 56 from occupational diseases.

Andrew Shawman, the Alberta Human Services assistant deputy minister for workplace standards delivery, admits the current legislation regarding workplace health and safety is outdated.

"There has been public consultation over the next phase in refreshing our legislation and potentially making it clearer to meet industry today," Shawman said. "Industry moves at a pace and clearly it takes us time to catch up, for the legislation to meet the economy of today.

"I wouldn't say we are behind in legislation, but we can always be better."

Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president, said part of the problem lies in the lack of health and safety inspectors in the province.

"We should have more health and safety inspectors on the ground, we should be spending more on health and safety programs, and we should be leading the pack in terms of prosecution of employers," he said, noting these aspects are all well behind the Canadian average.

Last year, the Alberta government convicted 20 people of various offences relating to fatalities, injuries and possible exposure to asbestos. This number is up from 11 in 2010.

Currently, there are 16 companies with active charges in Alberta.

"There are a lot of companies working hard to do what's right and then there are companies that don't," Hamilton said, believing the negligent companies should be criminally charged.

Shawman, however, states part of the problems lies in the workplace culture, despite increased education.

"It's an employee responsibility with the employers," Shawman said. "We do see that people take risks and they have their training.

"Roofers will have their training and full protection equipment, but they won't wear it or they'll wear a harness but no rope."

As for Hamilton, she now spends her time talking with companies about how important safety is in the workplace, trying to keep her son's death from being in vain.

"I do it because it feels real good to talk about Tim. In my head, it keeps him alive," Hamilton said, fighting back tears behind her sunglasses.

In Edmonton, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced it is working with the University of Calgary to discuss the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on its front-line social workers, which amount to about 2,400 of their 80,000 members.

"A lot of these people, as a part of their profession absorbs your clients' past and to be able to be sympathetic and empathetic, you take on some of that pain and after years, it takes a toll," said AUPE president Guy Smith, a former social worker himself.

While PTSD is typically discussed with returning soldiers, Smith said longtime social workers start to battle depression, emotional displays, appetite, adding it affects everyone differently.

Calgary Herald, Sun Apr 29 2012
Byline: Bryce Forbes

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