The North Star


National Day of Mourning

1000 Canadian Workers Die Every Year on the Job

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“Our members are fed up, defeated and broken” says Valerie, a representative from the Workers' Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) in Ontario, who North Star spoke with at a local commemoration of the National Day of Mourning in Guelph. She continues: “We all know the status-quo doesn't work for working people. If we don’t stand up for change, who will?”

This year's National Day of Mourning or Workers' Memorial Day falls 40 years after the Canadian Union of Public Employees passed a resolution during its 1983 annual convention, to begin holding a national day in remembrance of workers who had been killed because of their work. Since, over a hundred countries have adopted April 28th as a memorial day for workers. 

April 28th was picked as a nod to the date that the Ontario Workmen's Compensation Act was passed in 1914. The act was the first of its kind in Canada and eventually led to every province and territory in the country adopting a Worker's Compensation act. These acts have helped workers and their families in alleviating some of the hardship brought on by work-related deaths and injuries.

In the present day, the most recent statistics show that on average, around 1000 Canadians die every year from their jobs. Despite this being official data, the WHSC says that there are thousands of work-related deaths in Canada that are being filtered out from that number. According to the Centre, in 2022 alone, Ontario had over 2,000 work-related deaths, but only 220 were recognized by the Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

In a statement put out by the WHSC on the true toll of work-related deaths, Andrew Mudge, executive director of the Centre had this to say: “This routine of under recognition in many ways is an affront to the suffering of workers, their families and communities. Failure to shed light on the true toll of suffering serves only to downplay the collective need to more aggressively pursue safer, healthier work through enhanced regulations, stronger regulatory enforcement and ultimately workplace prevention efforts.”

The province's crisis in the under-recognition of work-related deaths is especially appalling when it comes to occupational disease deaths, from chronic illnesses like cancer, lung diseases, etc. All of which take long periods of time between the initial workplace exposure and disease onset. Estimates for how many Ontarians died in 2022 from work-related cancers alone, vary between 600 and 5,000 workers.

Under-recognition prevents working people and their families from receiving compensation and redress for work-related injuries and deaths, leaving many to pick up the pieces following life-altering events. Though institutions like the WSIB are failing to address this crisis brought on by unsafe workplaces, John, a firefighter in Guelph, claims that the increased involvement of workers in decision-making in their workplaces can change a lot of things.

“Workers moving up into supervision and management can serve a very important purpose, because they have the actual experience of working and they bring that experience to affect change... experience from the floor can really go a long way." A research project in 2021 involving over 40 manufacturing plants in the UK backs up John's claims. The project came to the conclusion that workplaces with higher levels of employee participation in managing and supervising positions led to fewer job hazards and incidents.

Janice Folk-Dawson, Executive Vice-President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, told North Star that workers have a responsibility to use the existing tools that available to them. "The right to refuse unsafe work is just one of the tools that workers have to make sure that they go home at the end of the day... When we look at this year, one worker a week [in Ontario] has been killed in the workplace. And so it is the only way that we can ensure that employers are making sure that those hazards are removed from the workplace."

Mudge ended the WHSC's statement with a call to action for this year's Day of Mourning: “This will be one of our priorities on April 28 as we take a moment to reflect on all lives lost and the many who suffer injury and illness as a result of hazardous workplace exposures. Though equally important the Day of Mourning affords us all the opportunity to re-evaluate and recommit to the many priorities we must act on to help workers not only survive, but to thrive.”

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