Safety First and Last: Penalties for workplace fatalities are too low
By Jeff Thorne
Sometimes we have to face certain truths in life, and I’m sure you’ve heard a few of them: life isn’t fair, the book is always better and the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a cup since 1967 (but this is the year).
By Jeff Thorne
I bet you haven’t heard this one though. Today, in a workplace somewhere in Canada, a worker will die. I’m not trying to be a pessimist – far from it. This unfortunately is a truth and a reality in our workplaces today. That dreaded phone call learning of an event that has led to the loss of a loved one is something that happens almost daily in Canada.
Finally, this unfortunate fact is being brought to light and is gaining national attention.
At the end of November there was CBC News investigation where they released a series of articles focusing on the fact that when workers die on the job, penalties, when applied, don’t go far enough. That’s right, “when applied,” as not every fatality case goes to trial and when they do, there is not always a conviction.
CBC News reviewed more than 250 cases across Canada, considered the details of these cases and concluded that the average fine across Canada was $97,500. Some provinces were higher than others. B.C and Saskatchewan were at the low end with B.C.’s average fine sitting at $26,563. Alberta and Ontario were on the high end. After a review of 36 fatalities in Alberta dating back to 2009, the average fine there was $275,000, while Ontario’s average fine was $125,000.
Alberta’s average may sound a little better in comparison to the rest of Canada, however, as quoted in the CBC article, data provided from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards in Canada shows there were 468 acute workplace fatalities in Alberta between 2010 and 2015, and there were only 30 convictions under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act for fatalities. That’s a horrible batting average.
These incidents happen everywhere, from Fernie, B.C., to Grand Falls, N.B., and everywhere in between. Fernie, a beautiful city located in the Elk Valley of the East Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., is known for its amazing snowfalls, powder skiing, biking and hiking. I had the pleasure of having the most amazing ski trip there in February 2017 – powder like I had never seen before. In October of that same year they declared a local state of emergency and evacuated numerous residents due to an ammonia leak. Fernie lost three workers that day in what will prove to be a preventable incident.
In Grand Falls in the evening of January 2011, a young worker, Patrick Desjardins, was cleaning the floor of his local Walmart’s tire and lube garage with a faulty floor buffer that was purchased from a garage sale. The extension cord used to power the buffer was frayed. When coiling the extension cord, he fell onto his back, pulling the buffer on top of him. Landing on the wet floor he suffered electrical shocks for a period of approximately 25 seconds and was electrocuted. I followed this case when it occurred because I was interested in the outcomes. Walmart, undoubtedly a large employer, knowingly allowed a worker to use a faulty piece of equipment with no training.
In 2012, Walmart and a supervisor pled guilty to a handful of charges. You would think that Walmart, the retail giant, would be penalized substantially. After all was said and done, the judge fined Walmart $120,000 and the supervisor $880.
This is the problem: fine amounts in many cases do not act as a deterrent and provide no reasonable form of justice for the loved ones left behind. Not that any amount of money would suffice, but seriously – $120,000 to Walmart? That’s embarrassing. The outcome in this case is all too common and this is what CBC brought to light. The penalties need to be more severe. Workplace fatalities in many cases are a crime and should be treated as such.
It’s time for a change. One acute fatality per day is one traumatic incident per day where a loved one doesn’t make it home. Maximum penalties are rarely levied and jail time, if it is applied, is minimal. This is unacceptable as these incidents are preventable. It’s time for a change.