Under-Reporting of Job-Related Injuries and Deaths

Mobilizing for Ontario Injured Workers' Day June 1

The official annual figures for job-related deaths in Canada typically fall between 900 to 1,000, a number compiled from data from workers' compensation agencies. The actual numbers are no doubt higher as the numbers from the workers' compensation agencies leave many workers out of the picture. A recent study points out these deficiencies and underscores more than ever the need for working people to empower themselves, so that their right to safe and healthy working conditions can be realized in a meaningful way.

Their authors of the study state that their aim is to broaden the discussion about issues facing workers that contribute to illnesses and death. The study, titled "Work-related deaths in Canada," published in November 2018 in Labour, the Journal of Canadian Labour Studies, states in its abstract:

"This paper critically examines official statistics on workplace fatalities in Canada. Each year the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada reports on the number of workers who die from a work-related injury or illness/disease. The problem, however, is that these data report the number of deaths that were accepted for compensation; it is not a system for tracking all work-related deaths. Drawing from a range of data sources and employing a broad definition of what constitutes death at work we attempt to generate a more accurate estimate of the number of work-related fatalities in Canada. In so doing our goal is not to produce a definitive number of annual deaths at work -- an impossibility given the paucity of data sources -- but instead to challenge dominant ways of conceptualizing what constitutes a work-related fatality and thus contribute to ongoing efforts to raise academic, political, and public awareness about this important issue. In this sense our goal is to question whether official statistics regarding workplace fatalities are complete when set against a broader understanding of what constitutes death at work."[1]

The study points out that as a result of this limited source of information, thousands of deaths are missing from occupational health and safety statistics, such as for workers not covered by a public workers' compensation system, or deaths due to stress-induced suicides, fatalities while commuting and occupational diseases. Depending on the province, only 70 to 98 per cent of the workforce may be covered by a public workers' compensation system, which works out to more than two million workers in Canada whose injuries or deaths at work would not be included in official statistics. This would include workers who are self-employed, domestic helpers, banking employees and farmers, as well as the most vulnerable sectors of the working class whose working conditions are amongst the most dangerous -- undocumented and migrant workers.

"This situation is akin to crime statistics only ever including solved homicides, therein leaving the impression that attempted murders, unsolved murders or suspicious deaths are not a concern," write the study's authors. Steven Bittle, an associate criminology professor at the University of Ottawa who lead the research, explained to the CBC, "Our notion of what constitutes a workplace fatality is too narrow and it is a mistake to count work-related fatalities through our compensation regimes." Bittle and the other authors estimate that a more accurate figure is between 10,000 to 13,000 deaths annually.

The study's authors propose that deaths while commuting to and from work be included in workplace-fatality statistics, a figure they estimate at about 460 per year. "We live in a culture of presenteeism, where people are expected to be at work -- at least culturally expected to be at work, if not through pressures in their workforce -- regardless of whether they're ill or whether the weather conditions are such that they shouldn't be driving at that particular time," Bittle told the CBC.

Another category of fatalities the authors suggest could be included in these figures are non-workers who die collaterally, but whose deaths can be directly attributed to workplace issues, such as a spouse who dies from mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos from washing their partner's work clothes, or bystanders killed in a crane or scaffolding collapse while passing by a construction site.

The study also looks at situations of extreme stress arising from working conditions unlikely to be covered by the current arrangements. The example is given of a Saskatchewan man employed by a small rural municipality who in 2017 took his own life after struggling with mental-health issues worsened by his work. In this case, the province's compensation board partly attributed his death to his employer. However, the study suggests the number of suicide-related claims is drastically underestimated. Bittle estimates that between 10 and 17 per cent of annual suicides in Canada could be classified as work-related, which works out to 400 to 800 fatalities each year.

The study concludes by saying that the single biggest category for underestimation are work-related diseases. At present, while approximately 500 to 600 deaths attributed to occupational disease are reported through the compensation systems nationwide, Bittle estimates that the actual number is more than 8,000 deaths. Such situations are well-known to injured workers, their families and their organizations, who for decades have fought tooth-and-nail for work-related cancers and other diseases to be recognized under the workers' compensation systems.

For some occupations, workers' defence organizations have been successful in turning this situation around. CBC reports that in January, Prince Edward Island's Workers Compensation Act came into force, giving firefighters presumptive coverage for certain types of cancers and illnesses. PEI was the last province to make such provisions.

Another example familiar to readers of Workers' Forum is the fight of the General Electric workers in Peterborough, Ontario, for recognition of the compensation claims of workers exposed to toxic chemicals over the years and for compensation for themselves and their survivors.[2] Another example is the McIntyre Power Project in Northern Ontario, that seeks justice for miners in Ontario's gold and uranium mines who in the mid-20th century were forced to inhale aluminum powder each shift purportedly to prevent silicosis, with many later suffering from serious neurological disorders, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.[3]

This study underscores the justness of the the Ontario Network of Injured Workers' Groups' "Workers' Comp Is a Right" campaign to fight for a compensation system that is truly universal, so that no one's injuries or deaths can be swept under the rug, and the causes for these casualties can be identified and eliminated and compensation for the victims provided. It confirms the justness of working people's fight for the dignity of labour, beginning with putting an end to working conditions that endanger the lives and health of workers.


1. "Work-Related Deaths in Canada," Steven Bittle, Ashley Chen, Jasmine Hébert, Labour, Journal of Canadian Labour Studies, Vol. 82 (2018).

2. See: "The Injustice Faced by General Electric Workers in Peterborough," Interview, Sue James, Chair, GE Occupational Health Advisory Committee, Ontario Political Forum, May 10, 2018.

See also: "Peterborough General Electric Retirees' Proposals for Workers' Compensation Reforms," Workers' Forum, June 5, 2018.

3. See: "Standing Up for Injured Workers in Northern Ontario: Four Successful Days of Action in Support of the Rights of Injured Workers," Ontario Political Forum, May 31, 2018.

(With files from CBC.)

This article was published in

Number 16 - May 2, 2019

Article Link:
Under-Reporting of Job-Related Injuries and Deaths - Nick Lin


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