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' ForumYour 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.[1] 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

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