'We're not seeing the truth': Inside the hidden dangers of the Canadian workplace
Unlike Australia, Britain and the United States, Canada does not have a national database of on-the-job fatality rates, Tavia Grant writes. Without such information, which can yield valuable preventive measures, is enough being done to protect the workers who needlessly risk their lives, or the families that grieve their avoidable loss?
Just this month, a contract worker in the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., died when he was buried while digging a trench; a subway-track maintenance worker with the Toronto Transit Commission died after he was pinned between two vehicles; and three workers died in an ammonia leak at a B.C. hockey arena.
Such on-the-job deaths are often treated as scattered, isolated incidents. But researchers say better data could help reveal patterns in these tragedies, or indicate whether some industries have systemic problems.
Canada has no national source of information on the rate of on-the-job deaths. The researchers say this is a glaring omission and stands in contrast to countries such as Australia, the United States and Britain, which regularly produce reports on the risks facing workers and make them publicly available.
Data on rates of worker fatalities and injuries yield crucial insights, and can help in prevention. They allow comparisons between industries, and over time. They let safety experts propose measures to reduce the toll. They allow better assessment of safety standards and can improve safety training.
A project The Globe and Mail conducted with assistance from Statistics Canada shows the five jobs with the highest fatality rate are chainsaw and skidder operators (including felling trees), fishing deckhand, pilot and flying instructor, forestry labourer and fisherman.
Occupations with the highest average (traumatic injury) fatality rates, 2011-2015
THE GLOBE AND MAIL » SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, AWCBC
The Globe used national data from the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) on accepted fatality claims to get an estimate for deaths by occupation, and compared that with employee counts in Statistics Canada's labour force survey to arrive at a fatality rate.
Regular and up-to-date national data on the rate of workplace deaths would help labour inspectors target efforts to where the need is the greatest. And allow prevention programs to be aimed at the most dangerous sectors.
The AWCBC has some data on national fatality numbers, but details on deaths by occupation or long-term trends in Canada are available only by request, for a fee. The association produces absolute numbers – how many workers die each year – but does not calculate the rates, which would show proportionately where risk is the highest.
"Monitoring occupational traumatic fatalities by the use of rates would be a preferable national information standard," said Cameron Mustard, president and senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health, adding that when expressed as a rate, "the hazardous nature of the work is much more visible."
In Canada, says Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, "If you don't have access to the data, how do you target prevention and enforcement at the same time. That's been a constant struggle we're having."
The government body Safe Work Australia (SWA) produces comprehensive statistics each year, including fatality rates over time, and by age, sex, industry, occupation and state.
Using rates takes into account the number of employees in each group "and therefore standardizes the figures so that they can be compared to one another," SWA said in an e-mail to The Globe.
Its database uses numbers from workers' compensation programs and coroner's reports. Fatality counts are tracked and posted in real time. The data are publicly available for free.
The insights give clarity on how deaths occur, and can drive evidence-based policy decisions on protections for workers. For example, rates have helped identify industries, such as agriculture, on which to focus prevention efforts.
The United States publishes an annual census of fatal occupational injuries that shows how risk has changed in various jobs over time, along with details on death rates by ethnicity and job status, such as contracted workers.
Britain publishes annual rates of worker fatalities that show 20-year trends and includes whether they were self-employed or salaried.
The provincial patchwork
That's not the case in Canada. Some provinces produce detailed data that sometimes include fatality and injury rates.
One reason for the patchy numbers is that most workplace issues fall under provincial jurisdiction – each province has a different way of collecting and counting worker injuries and deaths.
"Comprehensive statistics about injury and fatalities would be useful in getting a better sense of where injury prevention efforts should be directed, and it would also give us a sense of the effectiveness of those efforts," said Bob Barnetson, professor of labour relations at Athabasca University in Alberta.
"It's really difficult to get a sense of what's happening, and then if you intervene, how effective that intervention was," Prof. Barnetson said.
He is co-author of a study published last year on workplace injuries and deaths in Alberta. It recommended better statistics – and that provinces publish an annual list of "worst-performing" employers that shows which ones have repeated health and safety violations, high injury rates and complaints.
Even the available data may not tell the full story. Research has shown that some injuries and fatalities are not recorded in workers' compensation numbers, for reasons ranging from fear of reporting injuries to employers, to deaths that are not covered by the program.
'Somebody should have known'
One worker dies on the job, on average, nearly every day in Canada, according to the AWCBC. Add the cancers and longer-term illnesses from occupational exposure, and the number climbs to nearly 1,000.
"I don't think people generally have an appreciation of just how dangerous work is," said Steven Bittle, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, who is working on a project to estimate the actual number of people who are killed at work each year, beyond the workers' compensation numbers.
The 10 industries with the highest number of traumatic injury fatalities, 2011-2015
THE GLOBE AND MAIL » SOURCE: AWCBC
On-the-job deaths often have legal implications, he added. "You can't call these things accidents. People knew or should have known, or were required to know, and nothing was done about it and the consequence is that somebody died."
A 2015 study in B.C. found that workers' compensation data did not capture all of the worker fatalities in the province. The study, co-authored by Mieke Koehoorn of the University of British Columbia, looked at coroner's reports and hospital records and found injuries and fatalities that were not recorded by the provincial board – particularly in natural resources (such as fishing and farming).
It said that multiple data sources are needed to show the full burden of occupational deaths in Canada, and recommended national codes for classifying deaths and their causes, and that jurisdictions share information "for the public good."
Other Canadian studies have found that up to 40 per cent of eligible injury claims are not reported to workers' comp boards, said Sean Tucker, associate professor of human-resources management at the University of Regina.
As a result, workplaces seem safer than they actually are, said Prof. Tucker, whose paper this year found Saskatchewan is the province with the highest death rate.
What does it take to change?
For Shirley Hickman, each fatality number represents an avoidable death, with grieving spouses, children and friends left behind.
In 1996, her 20-year-old son Tim went to work and didn't come home. She got a call saying he had been injured at work at the city hockey arena. She rushed to the hospital in London, Ont., where she saw firefighters desperately pouring saline over burns he had suffered in an explosion.
Ten days later, Tim died.
She channelled the grief and outrage into co-founding an organization called Threads of Life, which supports families after a workplace fatality, life-altering injury or occupational disease. It was a first for Canada, and the world, she says.
Although the number of injuries a year in Canada has fallen, fatality numbers remain high despite years of education and more awareness, said Ms. Hickman, whose organization supports 2,700 families.
"So what does it take," she said, adding that she would like to see more detailed data to get a sense of "what is the cause and what is the root cause."
Better data could save lives, Mr. Yussuff says.
"No one should go to work to lose their lives," he says. "People go to work to earn a living."
Families share their stories
Mother of Luke Penny,
Luke Penny loved two things: his family, and being outside, where he would skateboard and snowboard or play baseball with wild abandon.
"He was a very gentle, kind human being," his mother, Patti Penny, said in an interview from her home in Uxbridge, Ont. "He was the guy that everybody wanted to be around."
At 26, in 2010, he had a new job as a construction labourer for a waterproofing company in Ontario. After less than a month at work, he was called to a job to waterproof the cracked foundation of a garage. No supervisor was on the site that day, and as far as Patti knows, her son had been given no proper training for a job in which he had no experience.
He was in a trench when, without warning, the wall collapsed. He died instantly of what the coroner later called "crushed asphyxiation due to blunt-force trauma."
His family's world collapsed too. "It was very destructive" for the whole family, Ms. Penny said, devastating his parents and his brother and sister.
His death was "absolutely" preventable, his mother believes. An inspection from an engineer would have shown that the wall was unsafe. Mr. Penny should have had training; a supervisor should have been on site. Charges were laid, but the case against the employer never went to trial.
"To have someone be killed on a job site and have absolutely no one held responsible – our family still to this day cannot fathom that," Ms. Penny said.
Wife to Omar Graham,
Omar Graham loved cricket, so much so that he would call his wife, Georgia, back home in Jamaica and ask her for a play by play of games he missed.
He was a "lovely husband," she says in an interview in her home in Malton, Jamaica, and "a good father."
He also wanted to provide for his family. In his second stint in Ontario as a migrant worker, in 2011, he was driving a truck towing a trailer filled with tobacco when it overturned. The truck went into a tree; Mr. Graham was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, at the age of 33.
And that is the sum total of what Ms. Graham was told about his death. "I don't get a police report, I don't get a medical report to say that my husband died of this, or what caused it … there was nothing at all."
Calls to his employer were not returned. She doesn't know whether anyone was ever charged over his death.
She firmly believes his death was preventable.
Migrant workers – already an invisible work force – are not counted in any official workplace fatality statistics that The Globe could find – at the federal level, not at Employment and Social Development Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; Statistics Canada or the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada.
With reports from Marina Burnel in Kingston, Jamaica.
Sister to Tommy Raymond,
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Tommy Raymond was a caring father, a devoted son and – coming from a family of 11 siblings – a beloved brother who loved telling stories that made people laugh.
He had worked on the dockyards for almost 30 years when he was called in for an extra shift one night in 2009. As a foreman, he was working on a container pier – where containers are unloaded or loaded between ships and trucks – that night when he dropped a lock on the ground.
He tried to scoop it up with his foot, lost balance and fell. Not seeing him, a tractor-trailer driver started up his truck; Mr. Raymond was pulled under the wheels. He died at the age of 45 in what his sister says was a preventable tragedy.
"This is a life sentence, for myself and my family. There's not a day that goes by that we don't think of him and feel the pain of his loss," his sister Paulette Raymond, said in an interview from Halifax. "We're losing people across this country every day in these kinds of situations."
The incident was investigated, but no charges ever laid. Ms. Raymond would like to see more punitive action taken against negligent employers, and more accountability in the safety of workers. She also wants more transparency on the scale of workplace fatalities.
"It should be all above board, and anybody should have access to it. We should be able to see the truth, and what's happening here is we're not seeing the truth," she said.
The public may not realize the scale of workplace fatalities. "Because they're all isolated and they're all across the country, let's bring them all together and say, this is what we're facing."
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