Many lives are devastated when a worker is killed on the job. Sometimes, even entire communities.
Take the case of four men, including three FFAW-Unifor members, killed when the fishing boat they were working last September foundered off the coast of Newfoundland.
When word went out in the small community of Shea Heights near St. Johns that the Pop’s Pride fishing boat had been lost on September 6, the community with historic ties to the sea immediately felt the loss, even as residents clung to hope.
"Those community members, they're our family, they're our friends, they're our loved ones, and like anybody in any community across the country, you're going to hold out hope,” Melissa Earles-Druken, chair of the Shea Heights Community Board, told reporters at the time.
Any such hope diminished as the boat was found flooded, and two bodies were pulled from the water. The rescue efforts at that point officially switched to recovery of the remaining bodies, which have never been found. Families and the community were left to search for answers about what happened.
Across Canada every year, we search far too often for answers to explain why and how our loved ones die on the job – whether the sudden loss of an industrial accident, or the slow death from chemicals or other toxins in the workplace.
In 2015, the most recent year for which numbers available, 852 workers died at work.
No worker should ever leave for work in the morning, never to come back. No family should receive the devastating call that their loved one isn’t coming home. And no workplace should have to continue living with the loss of a co-worker from a death that the employer could have prevented.
It is for that reason that every year on April 28 Unifor, along with Canada’s labour movement, marks the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. It is the most somber day of the year for workers and the labour movement. Across Canada, unions and labour councils hold ceremonies to mark the day.
This year’s Day of Mourning recognizes 25 years since the devastating events at the Westray Mine in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County, in which 26 coal miners lost their lives in a series of explosions in the mine, less than a year after it was opened with great fanfare.
The methane gas and coal dust explosions on the morning of May 9, 1992, are believed to have killed all 26 miners almost instantly, and came after safety concerns had been raised at the mine since its opening the previous September.
As in Shea Heights, the families and community of Pictou had to deal with not only the tragic loss of life, but the realization that some bodies would never be found. But there the similarity ends. On a fishing vessel, the skipper is onboard, sharing the risks. At Westray, the managers were safely on the surface, making life and death decisions about the safety of the workers.
Westray attracted massive international media attention. When questions were raised about the safety of the mine, charges were laid against mine managers, but later dropped. The Canadian labour movement took up the cause and successfully pushed for laws in Canada that now hold managers and corporate directors responsible for failing to protect the lives and safety of workers and the employer can be held criminally responsible for the injury or death of a worker.
To mark the anniversary, the theme for this year’s Day of Mourning is “Remember Westray. Enforce the law” and it comes with the demand that government hold corporations, directors, and managers accountable when they fail to protect the safety of workers.
Last year’s Day of Mourning called for a ban on the import and export of asbestos, as well as other measures to ensure its safe removal from workplaces. Last December, after ongoing lobby efforts and thanks to the leadership of the Canadian Labour Congress, the federal government announced that a complete ban would be in place by 2018, marking a significant victory and demonstrating why it is so important to mark such occasions as the National Day of Mourning but to work together to maintain unity in the labour movement.
Of the 26 Westray miners killed, only 15 bodies were found. The other 11 were entombed in the mine when it was sealed off months later, never to be recovered – much like two of the fisherman lost at sea just last year off Newfoundland.
Shea Harbour fisherman Glen Winslow helped pull the bodies of two friends out of the Atlantic last September. Days later, Winslow said he hoped everyone on the Pop’s Pride was wearing a lifejacket – by then not because he believed they’d survived, but because it would help rescuers find their bodies.
It’s the kind of wish no worker should ever have to make on behalf of a friend. Be sure to mark Day of Mourning in your community.