Westray anniversary spurs call for greater enforcement

The United Steelworkers Canada (USW) union is marking the 20th anniversary of the fatal Westray mine explosion by renewing its call for increased enforcement of Bill C-45, federal legislation which amended the Criminal Code of Canada in 2004 to impose criminal negligence liability on organizations and their representatives.

Ken Neumann, the USW's national director, says that the union is putting together information packages on the legislation and plans to meet with attorney generals in each province and territory, who are responsible for upholding the Criminal Code. Peter MacKay, the MP for Central Nova, is taking the issue up with the Attorney General of Canada, he adds.

"What we are trying to do is start a campaign which is going to increase the education, the training and also the political will necessary in each of the provinces and territories to ensure that the legislation is used and prosecutions proceed," Neumann says.

"I think that once they get serious with it, you are in fact going to see the accident rate and fatality rate decrease. You can write the best legislation in the world, but if you are not going to enforce it, it is worthless."

To date, Quebec is the only province to successfully convict under Bill C-45.

In a letter to Alberta's newly appointed Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, Jonathan Denis, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan says that "every worker who is killed or seriously injured due to criminal negligence deserves to have their death investigated through the lens of C-45."

"I would also encourage you to direct police forces around the province to establish dedicated units to investigate worker deaths alongside investigators from the provincial government's occupational health and safety branch," McGowan writes. "Without dedicated units trained in the use of Bill C-45 provisions, I'm convinced that this important and powerful tool will never be used effectively as a deterrent to criminal negligence on the part of employers."

The announcement of the campaign in Ottawa on May 8 included MacKay, whose riding is home to the site of the former Westray coal mine and who was instrumental in gaining all-party support for Bill C-45. The 20th anniversary is being commemorated in Stellarton, Nova Scotia with a series of events, including an early morning vigil and an evening memorial service.

"On Parliament Hill, I am joining with others in a display of unity to mourn the loss of these men and to speak to an overhaul in legislation surrounding workplace conditions," MacKay adds in a press release. "I was proud to be a part of the 'Westray Bill,' or Bill C-45. The basic premise of this bill is safe mining is good business."

In the early morning hours of May 9, 1992 in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, an entire shift of 26 miners died when a spark ignited a pocket of methane gas inside the mine, causing a massive explosion. Although rescue efforts continued for a week after the explosion, there were no survivors and the bodies of 11 miners were never recovered.

Bill C-45 implementation guide released

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is marking the 20th anniversary by releasing a guide for investigating corporate negligence in the workplace. "The intentions of Parliament and the language of the amendments is clear, but the enforcement is lax and that has to change," says CLC secretary-treasurer Hassan Yussuff. "If an employer willfully neglects health safety knowing that someone can be injured or killed, they should be held criminally responsible. Our guide shows how that can be done."

The 20-page guide, available at www.canadianlabour.ca/sites/default/files/death-and-injury-at-work-en.pdf, includes background information on the accident, tips for police investigating corporate negligence, differences between Bill C-45 amendments and occupational health and safety legislation, and relevant Criminal Code provisions, among others.

"We believe that Parliament, back in 2004, did make the right decision," Neumann says. "The issue is now that the laws aren't enforced. I don't like this job of telling loved ones that their spouse isn't coming home from work."

OHS Canada, Tues May 15 2012

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