Thursday, October 30, 2014

Westray Act enforcement plea made to Pincher Creek Town Council

Toni Lucas 

A delegation from the United Steel Workers Local 9346 came to the regular meeting of Pincher Creek Town Council on Monday evening, October 27.  The delegates consisted of Local 9346 President Alex Hanson and Health and Safety Chair Troy Cook.  They were there to discuss Bill C-45, known as the Westray Act, and to get support from council for more education about and enforcement of the act, which can hold corporations, directors, and executives criminally accountable for the health and safety of workers during workplace fatalities due to neglect or unsafe work practices or situations.  They asked council for a letter of support toward changes to educating police and crown attorneys about this act for future enforcement.

The two delegates showed a presentation and explained that the Westray Act came into being after one of Canada's worst mining disasters, which occurred in Plymouth, Nova Scotia in 1992. Twenty six miners were killed after methane gas ignited causing an explosion. Prior to the accident safety concerns were raised by employees, union officials and government inspectors. Afterward a public inquiry found that many of the issues brought to the corporation running the mine (Curragh Resources Incorporated) and brought to government regulators were found to be not addressed.

The Westray Act was put in place to give workers some recourse if there is a work incident that has occurred due to what might be criminal negligence and to establish a legal duty for anyone who is directing the work of other people to take care to ensure the safety of the workers.    The delegation spoke of other disasters, including an incident involving a man who was trapped underwater in an excavator where an escape hatch had been welded shut.  They explained that this worker fought to stay out of the water as the equipment sank.  According to Hanson co-workers gave him a  garden hose so he could continue to breathe.  "His co-workers were holding his hand, and they felt him slip away.  That is the kind of stuff that should be under the Westray Act that is not being enforced," said Hanson.  They called it the 'workers dilemma', when anyone has the right to refuse an unsafe work situation but there are possible repercussions or retaliatory measures if they do so. "This is not an union issue at all.  This is the law. The last line of defence for safety anywhere is the worker, and it is only their right to refuse that stops that process from advancing.  That is one single worker refusing to do work, and often times there can be retaliatory action. Not always, but it does happen."

Councillor Doug Thornton asked who is it that would be responsible.  "My dilemma is this, how do you pick out the guy that goes to jail?  Is it the CAO, or the Chief Financial Officer?"  The two men explained that anyone that is directly aware that there is a potential hazard and allows or directs work to proceed anyway is at fault in the case of an accident.

"You know what is really sad is the Westray incident, no one has gone to jail for that yet.   Even that incident which is clearly negligence hasn't been upheld," said Cook.  Hanson additionally explained that there are incidents of death in the workplace that do not have any company fault.

Mayor Don Anderberg explained that it is normal procedure of the council to accept the delegation and the presentation, and the council would discuss this issue at a future time, most likely at the next council meeting.

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