May 9, 2023, marks the 31st anniversary of the Westray disaster that killed 26 miners in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.
Following the explosion caused by a buildup of methane gas and coal dust, Justice Peter K. Richard who led the public inquiry into the disaster found “a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect,”.
No one was ultimately held accountable for the deaths of these miners. The United Steelworkers and their allies fought for years and won amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada known as the Westray Law.
The Westray Law means negligent employers can be charged and convicted under the Criminal Code for criminal negligence, facing the possibility of going to jail and a criminal record. This important part of the Criminal Code is rarely enforced. This is unacceptable.
Each year approximately 1000 Canadian workers die because of something that happens to them at work. We know this is only the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t represent the full scale of worker fatalities in Canada.
While not every worker death is a result of criminal negligence on the part of the employer, when a worker is killed as a result of their job, a thorough criminal review of the circumstances that led to that fatality is needed. Negligent employers must face the full legal consequences of the Westray Law.
“A failure to enforce the law gives employers with little regard for the life and welfare of workers a pass,” says Bea Bruske, President of the Labour Congress. “The real potential for an employer to be held criminally responsible and go to jail when a worker is killed or seriously injured is a key part of changing behaviour and keeping workers safe”.
One death is one too many. Crown attorneys and police must be trained and expected to investigate and prosecute these cases, with investigators and prosecutors who specialize in this work. Regulators, police and Crowns must deepen and coordinate their efforts to ensure enforcement. “Over 30 years after that harrowing day, let us use the Law – to the fullest extent.”