NICK EAGLAND | Vancouver Sun | April 28, 2018
Families and coworkers of loved ones lost to work-related injuries and illnesses wept openly beneath the rain Saturday at Day of Mourning ceremonies.
Vancouver’s Olympic cauldron, lit to honour the dead, warmed the backs of hundreds who came to mourn, many in hard hats, steel-toed boots and high-visibility vests. WorkSafeBC chair Ralph McGinn thanked them for their “courage in the face of pain and sorrow,” calling the crowd a “powerful reminder of why we must remain committed to workplace health and safety.”
In 2017, WorkSafeBC processed 158 work-related death claims in the province. Of those, 87 people died from occupational disease, mainly from asbestos exposure decades ago, and 71 from traumatic injury, including 28 from motor-vehicle incidents.
“We share our grief with the family and friends of fallen workers, whose lives were forever changed, who experience this loss each and every day,” Premier John Horgan said in a statement.
Saturday’s ceremony in Vancouver was one of 40 held across B.C. as part of a national observance that officially began on April 28, 1991.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union hung placards around their necks bearing the names and death dates of union brothers and sisters who were burned, crushed or drowned on the job, many of them decades ago.
Health Sciences Association members wore placards with messages such as “Kill a worker, go to jail.”
After a moment of silence punctuated by horn blasts from a nearby tugboat, a bagpiper led a procession across Jack Poole Plaza. Marchers placed red and white roses along a ramp decorated with stickers commemorating some of the dead and on 50 makeshift “coffins” marked with information about thousands killed in B.C. over the past century.
The crowd was silent as Jack Thomas described his desperate dash for help after losing most of his arm to a faulty conveyor belt inside a recycling plant in 2015, when he was 17 years of age. He called for an end to pressure on young workers to do as they’re told, and for pushback against employers who don’t keep workplaces safe.
“There’s no reason we should put our lives at risk to make a living,” Thomas said.
Rosemarie Lachnit wept as she recounted holding her 20-year-old son Nicholas’s hand and telling him, “You can go, it’s all right, I’ll be OK,” moments before he succumbed to a brain injury sustained during a fall on a construction site in 2015.
“It’s the eager-to-please young people who need to be more aware of the potential dangers in the workplace,” Lachnit said. “We need to educate our young workers about safety on the job site.”
Offering another example of the devastation caused by unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, Minister of Labour Harry Bains pointed across Burrard Inlet to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, where 19 workers died in 1958 after several spans collapsed during construction.
Bains mourned the three men who died following an ammonia leak in a Fernie ice rink last October, and the three women killed when an overcrowded van taking them to a farm crashed near Abbotsford in 2007.
“The frustration that builds around this is that these injuries and losses are preventable,” he said. “They do not have to happen — and they shouldn’t.”
Bains said he was committed to making B.C.’s workplaces the safest in the country through prevention and strong enforcement programs, particularly in sectors with higher rates of injuries.
The highest number of work-related deaths by industry in 2017 were in construction (51), manufacturing (33), services (26), primary-resources sector (15), transportation and warehousing (22), according to WorkSafeBC. Deaths from traumatic injury are declining but thee number of deaths from disease went up 33 per cent between 1996 and 2017.
Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of B.C., called for employers and workers to practise mindfulness and preparedness before the start of each shift; promote mental and physical wellness in the workplace; discourage bravado, shortcuts and risk-taking that increase the risk of injury or death; and ask themselves, “Is this the safest way to complete the task?”
Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said more must be done to protect workers and to fairly compensate those who are harmed and support the families of those who die.
She addressed the #MeToo movement and its impact on the workplace, where people have experienced bullying and sexual harassment as well as sexual, gender and intimate-partner violence.
“For many workers, it is prevalent and simply seen as part of the job,” she said. “The effects of workplace violence are devastating, leading to physical and psychological injuries and illnesses and, sadly, in some cases, death due to homicide or suicide.”
The theme of Day of Mourning this year was ending violence and harassment in the workplace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement. Lanzinger called upon government to recognize workplace violence as a hazard in the Workers’ Compensation Act.
“It’s time to put workers back into our workers’ compensation system,” she said. “We mourn for the dead and we commit to continue to fight for the living.”