In Defence of the Health and Safety of Mining Workers
Our Defence of Safety Is the Defence of Human Lives
Sean Staddon is an underground electrician and United Steelworkers Local 6500 shop steward at Vale's Totten Mine in Sudbury.
Workers' Forum: Your intervention at
the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention at the beginning of
November about the need to eliminate disregard for human life at the
workplace, especially in hazardous sectors such as mining, was very
eloquent. Can you briefly repeat what you said there?
Sean Staddon: I was speaking on a resolution asking for the enforcement of the
Westray Act and about our campaign Kill a Worker, Go to Jail.
My brothers and sisters at Local 6500 are all too familiar with the
pain, suffering and grief of workplace fatalities. As
a result, our union executive and our health and safety representatives
have become experts at attending coroners' inquests, something no
family should have to live through. Our work environments are
dangerous, but so too is our employers' repetitive disregard for human
life. What we feel as steelworkers is that when an employer gets to
plea bargain and is not held responsible, that shows a blatant
disregard for human life. We work for a large multinational miner, they
pay fines and continue on with business.
Mining is in the blood of
every Sudburian and has touched every member of our community in some
form or another. We have never accepted and will never accept that
losing lives is "the cost of doing business." If you look at miners
across the global spectrum, with dam bursts and other incidents, it is
pretty evident that minerals are considered more important than human
life in some aspects.
What I wanted to convey is that the Westray mining disaster happened
30 years ago and sure, there were huge changes that were put into
federal law that negligent employers were to be held criminally
responsible. But we have not seen crown prosecutors use that law enough
when it was warranted. It is something that we have advocated for a
while, that crown prosecutors and police be trained to recognize
workplace negligence leading to death, workplace murder really, and
treat it as such.
Just in Ontario alone if you look at the number of contraventions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act
that are written up, with no deterrence for a company to correct the
violation, one of those contraventions is eventually going to lead to a
fatality. And in any mine in Ontario, when Ministry of Labour
inspectors show up they write orders but there is no monetary fine,
just written orders to fix something. There are dozens of those every
visit. There is no real deterrence for a company to do better and stand
up and follow the law. Employers continue to break the law, police and
Crown prosecutors choose not to utilize the legislation, and families
are left to pick up the pieces.
We are hearing a lot from the Ford Conservative government that we
must cut red tape, that we must look at eliminating inefficiencies in
business and I fear that this is going to affect health and safety for
my brothers and sisters even more in the future.
I am a young worker, 35 years old, and I was only five when the
Westray disaster happened 30 years ago. I am worried that Westray may
not even be known by our young people. I am picking up the fight from
stewards and workers before me who are retiring. I am trying to learn
as much as I can about why certain legislation is in place so I can
educate young workers and all workers that I represent that health and
safety standards are there to keep you alive. We can all do better, we
must all involve ourselves in health and safety.
1. The Westray Act is
federal legislation that was adopted on March 31, 2004 and amended the
Canadian Criminal Code. Among other things, it made companies criminally
liable when their negligence causes the death or serious injury of a
worker. The law was passed as a result of the
1992 Westray coal mining disaster in Nova Scotia where 26 miners were
killed after methane gas ignited, causing an explosion. Despite serious
safety concerns raised by workers, union officials and government
inspectors in the period leading up to the tragedy, the company did not
institute changes to protect the health and safety of the workers
and the disaster occurred. The fight of the Steelworkers at the time
was instrumental in the passing of the law. Since then, the cases where
the law has been used to criminally investigate or sue employers have
been very rare.
This article was published in
November 24, 2021 - No. 111