One by one, mourners stepped forward outside the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-1937 Hall Saturday, placing roses to honour workers killed, injured or disabled on the job in what has become an annual observance and a stark reminder of workplace hazards.
About 60 people attended the National Day of Mourning ceremony in Port Alberni, where a succession of speakers recounted grim statistics, tragic anniversaries and the suffering of families affected by preventable workplace incidents. They also heard messages of hope for change.
Last year, 158 people died in the workplace in B.C. Worldwide, the figure is staggering—an estimated two million people according to the International Labour Office.
“Every year in Canada we see about a thousand people killed because of their work,” said MC Ron Corbeil, a retired USW health, safety and environment co-ordinator.
A string of anniversaries of forest industry deaths happens to fall at this time of year, he noted, recalling the fatal 2012 Prince George mill explosion, preceded three months earlier by the Burns Lake mill tragedy. Four years ago, two workers died in a Nanaimo sawmill shooting. Last year, three workers died in a Woss logging train accident.
Acting mayor Denis Sauvé called it a day of solidarity.
“The tragic incident in Woss is a stark reminder of the hazards in our workplaces,” Sauvé said, mentioning many co-workers he’d lost in 27 years with the RCMP. “The loss of life is too many and this is something our communities cannot compromise on.”
Corbeil said it was the sight of police officers honouring a fallen comrade that, more than 30 years ago, sparked the idea for the National Day of Mourning.
Keith Ellwood of Western Forest Products said the company pursues a higher standard.
“While we are making progress in strengthening our safety culture, we recognize that there is a lot more work to do,” he said. A worker at Alberni Planer Division was recently hospitalized after a mill injury. “While we can’t change things that have happened, we can certainly learn from them.”
Although its safety record has improved in recent years, the forest industry remains among one of the most dangerous work sectors in Canada.
“Staying safe requires a thorough effort every day,” Ellwood said.
Port Alberni firefighter Travis Cross spoke of the recent death of a retired Oak Bay fire service chaplain due to post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of new legislation, B.C. first responders no longer have to prove their PTSD to WorkSafe B.C., he added. It also means they will receive treatment immediately and that survivors of victims of occupational stress will receive compensation.
“We lobbied for this benefit since 1992, almost 26 years, and persistence paid off,” Cross said.
Improving workplace safety requires an all-out effort, said MLA Scott Fraser: “None of us can do it alone; it’s everybody’s responsibility.”
Similarly, progress is required for disabled workers, he added, recalling a lesson from Wolfgang Zimmerman, president of Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences in Port Alberni.
“As he has taught me, many of those who are injured in the workplace do not get back to work and are relegated to lifelong disability, often in poverty, often with marital breakup. Their fate is not handled well by society…None of us is far away from a workplace accident. It can happen to any one of us at any moment. We need to make sure the protections are there.”
“Mourn for the dead and fight for the living,” Corbeil added, paraphrasing an old labour movement adage.