In the early morning hours of May 9, 1992, a huge explosion ripped through the Westray coal mine
in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. In a matter of seconds, the lives of 26 miners were extinguished. It marked one of the worst workplace disasters in Canada in generations.
The mine, which was being organized by the USW at the time of the explosion, was rife with terrible and
dangerous conditions, Justice K. Peter Richard, who headed an inquiry into the disaster, noted in his report,
The Westray Story: A Predicable Path to Disaster.
The inquiry brought to light the actions and inactions of the employer, regulators and governments that made a deadly event all but inevitable. It also exposed the legal system’s deficiencies that prevented those responsible from being criminally prosecuted. Recognizing that shortcoming, the Steelworkers union launched what became a decade-long campaign to compel the federal government to change the Criminal Code of Canada to allow for prosecutions in cases such as Westray.
Westray amendments pass unanimously
On March 31, 2004, Bill C-45, also known as the Westray bill, passed with unanimous consent of MPs in the House of Commons. The law established new legal duties on employers for workplace health and safety and allowed for holding organizations, including corporations, their representatives and those directing work to be held criminally responsible for workplace deaths and injuries.
“While the ‘Westray Law’ itself was a tremendous victory, enforcement became a new focus for our union,” noted Marty Warren, USW National Director.
“More than 10 years after the law was passed, there were few prosecutions and convictions, so our union embarked on a new campaign to raise awareness of the legislation and the crucial need to enforce it,” Warren said.
“ It is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of coverup, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical indifference.”
– Justice K. Peter Richard, Westray Inquiry Commissioner
The USW’s national campaign, Stop the Killing, Enforce the Law, is focused on major stakeholders who are capable of making change.
In particular, the campaign targets all levels of government, law enforcement, attorneys general and Crown prosecutors. The campaign’s goals include increased training for law enforcement and Crown prosecutors in the use of the Westray Law, and the appointment of dedicated police officers and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute workplace fatalities
when gross negligence is involved.
“Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go in terms of enforcing the law in cases of workplace deaths and injuries. There are too few criminal charges and even fewer convictions,” said Dominic Lemieux, USW District 5 Director.
Kill a worker, go to jail
“The real story behind Westray is the human suffering brought on by employers who don’t think beyond the ‘bottom line’ and who seem willing to accept workplace injuries and deaths as a cost of doing business,” said Scott Lunny, USW District 3 Director.
“Proper use of the Westray Law would go a long way in showing employers that ‘business as usual’ could mean a jail term for a CEO,” said Myles Sullivan, USW District 6 Director.
“In Canada we continue to see about 1,000 workplace fatalities every year, as well as thousands of deaths from occupational disease that go unrecognized, and hundreds of thousands of serious, often life-altering workplace injuries,” added Sullivan.
Workers must come home safe
In 1992, the USW made a commitment to the families, friends and communities of those 26 Westray miners. We vowed to never back down on our efforts to hold employers accountable. Workers are not expendable. More must be done
to ensure basic health and safety on the job. Now, 30 years after the Westray disaster, we continue to honour our commitment to fight for the right of all workers to come home at the end of the day without illness or injury.
In May, Steelworkers leaders and rank-and-file members will be in Pictou County, N.S., for the 30th anniversary
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of Westray, to join with the families and community and remember the miners who were killed. “Their light shall