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Deadly Boom

Rising job related deaths prompt safety calls.

Tom Sandborn 10 Jan

Tom Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Roses on coffins at Bentall memorial. Photo T. Sandborn.

Job related injuries and illnesses are killing nearly five Canadians a day, and the death toll for B.C. workers last year alone was higher than for Canadian forces in the entire Afghan mission.

"Canada can do much better," charges a think tank study, citing a 45 per cent increase nationally in job related deaths between 1993 and 2005.

The study, issued by The Centre for the Study of Living Standards, finds accidental deaths are down but occupational illness deaths are up, making Canada the worst among developed nations at reducing workplace fatalities over the last 20 years.

On Monday, Jan. 7, dozens of mourners gathered in downtown Vancouver to remember four construction workers who fell to their deaths from the Bentall Centre's Tower IV on that date in 1981. They heard Wayne Peppard, executive director of the BC and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, say the current boom in construction in the province had led to an increase in construction related deaths.

There were 38 construction industry deaths recorded in this province in 2006. 2007 stats for B.C.'s construction industry are not yet available, but WorkSafe BC compensated 87 work related deaths in the province last year.

By comparison, the death toll for Canadians involved in the current Afghan mission now stands at 74.

'Our work is not done'

"B.C. is about to enter yet another record-breaking year for construction. In the rush to meet completion dates and budget projections, we must never forget about the safety of workers," Peppard said.

Peppard noted that B.C construction-related deaths had averaged 25 a year since the Bentall tragedy, and 35 per year over the last five years.

Peppard criticized the Campbell government and WorkSafe BC (formerly the Workers Compensation Board) for eliminating many health and safety regulations, but commended "the recent board at WorkSafe BC for some recent actions they have taken to review those decisions and to provide a safer workplace for construction workers."

Peppard singled out for praise the creation last year of the Construction Compliance Plan/High Risk Strategy, which is increasing onsite inspections by hiring more inspectors, creating new regulations requiring young and new worker safety orientation, and developing rules governing safety for those working alone, which will come into effect Feb. 1.

Al Johnson, a WorkSafe BC official present to participate in the memorial, told The Tyee that construction is, by its nature, a dangerous trade. Nevertheless, he said, "Until there are no deaths and injuries in construction, our work is not done."

Canada's worsening record

A research document published in 2006 suggests that the undone work around worker safety extends far beyond B.C. and its construction industry.

Five Deaths a Day: Workplace Fatalities in Canada 1993-2005, written by Andrew Sharpe and Jill Hardt for the Ottawa economic think tank The Centre for Study of Living Standards, reports that workplace deaths have spiked upward in Canada during the period studied, rising from 758 in 1993 to 1,095 in 2005.

Construction industry deaths across the country during this period fell into the mid-range in terms of number of deaths per hundred thousand workers from 1995-2005. During that period about 21 construction workers out of 100,000 died on the job. By comparison, nearly 50 workers out of 100,000 died at work in the mining, quarrying and oil well sectors. The finance and insurance sector saw one death per half million workers.

International Labour Organization figures show Canada with the fifth highest incidence of workplace deaths globally, trailing Korea, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey.

When adjustments are made for different record keeping protocols, the U.S. also has a higher incidence of work related fatalities than Canada. The ILO says that 2.2 million workers die annually in work related accidents and illnesses around the world, and that 270 million work accidents and 160 million work-related illnesses are reported.

Asbestos a big killer

Occupation-related illnesses account for much of the Canadian industrial death toll, with the toxic legacy of asbestos mining and use the biggest single element in that casualty list. In 2005, 50.7 per cent of work related deaths were caused by occupational illness, and 61 per cent of those deaths, 340, were caused by asbestos. Asbestos alone killed 31 per cent of all workers who died from work-related causes in 2005.

Under Monday's gray skies in downtown Vancouver, family members, trade union activists and media gathered around four symbolic black coffins, each bearing a white hard hat with the name of one of the victims who fell to their deaths from the top of the Bentall tower in 1981. Blood red roses lay beside each hard hat.

The four carpenters remembered were Gunther Couvreux, Donald W. Davis, Yrjo Mitrunen and Brian Stevenson. They plummeted more than 30 floors to the pavement when a concrete fly form they were working on tore free from the building

"These accidents should stop," Stevenson's mother Joyce told The Tyee. "Too often, safety is taken for granted."

Government 'lip service' alleged

Craig Paterson is a veteran Vancouver lawyer who has specialized in cases related to worker health and safety. He acted for the carpenters' union in the coroner's inquest into the Bentall deaths, and told The Tyee in a recent phone interview that the yearly memorial serves an important public purpose in reminding us all of the unacceptable toll that industrial accidents and injuries impose on Canada.

"The memorial helps make safety a public issue again," he said. "The results of the Bentall inquest make it clear that even with a high quality company, safety screw-ups can happen. There has to be more serious attention paid to health and safety on the job site, and the lip service paid to it by the current B.C. and federal governments is not sufficient."

"We've seen too much ideologically-driven changes and cuts to regulation and inspection lately," Paterson added. "Lack of enforcement remains a problem across the country. I am seeing a real epidemic of deaths and injuries in the Alberta oil fields these days, as young and inexperienced workers flood in, for example."

A study by the Ontario Construction Secretariat found that during the 1990s union-organized job sites consistently reported fewer than half the number of workplace time-loss incidents than did non-union sites in that province. No similar study has been done in B.C. to determine whether unionized job sites are safer than others.

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