Five workers die a day

Rise in fatalities among workers mostly due to diseases

Workplace deaths are on the rise in Canada, where nearly five workers — most in their 60s — die every working day.

That’s according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, based on data collected by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada.

With 1,097 workplace fatalities in 2005, the rate of people dying because of work has risen by 56 per cent from 1996.

Most of the increase can be attributed to a rise in deaths from occupational disease, which has doubled from 1.5 per 100,000 workers in 1996 to 3.4 per 100,000 workers in 2005. Most of those succumbing to occupational diseases are in their later years. In 2005, there were 18.1 deaths per 100,000 workers for those aged 60 to 64 — 10 times the rate of 1.8 for workers aged 15 to 19.

A big culprit among causes of occupational diseases is asbestos, which accounts for 2.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2005, up from 0.4 deaths in 1996.

“That’s a legacy of our past,” said Andrew Sharpe, executive director of the Ottawa-based research centre. “We have to make sure there’s compensation, and that the regulations on exposure to asbestos is really tight, and I think they are.”

Although deaths from workplace accidents have held steady — from 2.9 per 100,000 workers in 1996 to 3.0 per 100,000 in 2005 — Sharpe said Canadians can’t be complacent.

“The rate of accidents is where we should be doing much better,” said Sharpe. “We’re still not doing enough to make people aware of the importance of workplace protection.”

One reason for the high rate is that sectors with typically higher rates of fatalities, such as mining, construction and oil and gas, have been experiencing strong growth in the last decade.

“Historically we’ve been on a positive development from the point of view of workplace safety, with the movement to office jobs and service-sector jobs. And now that’s ended, at least temporarily,” said Sharpe.

He added that other factors may be at play, including the pressure to work harder and looser enforcement of safety regulations.

Cameron Mustard, president of the Institute for Work and Health, a Toronto-based research institute, said it’s important to note the distinction between deaths by disease and deaths by traumatic incident.

“The progress in Canada to reduce deaths arising at work from traumatic causes has not been as good as most jurisdictions would like. But the frequency with which it occurs has not increased. It just hasn’t gone down.”

In terms of disease, Mustard said the reported numbers are likely just the tip of the iceberg, with the number of work-related deaths caused by disease far outnumbering those that are compensated for by workers’ compensation boards.

“It’s quite difficult for the family of someone who has died, and for the physician who’s caring for somebody, to recognize the occupational cause of a disease,” he said.

“But I do believe that one of the reasons that the number of compensated fatalities is increasing is because the workers’ compensation agencies are doing more and more work to increase the recognition of these diseases.”

For example, British Columbia’s workers’ compensation board has been trying to track down all cases of mesothelioma, a fatal cancer that’s caused by exposure to asbestos. Because of this, said Mustard, the number of mesothelioma in B.C. has doubled in the last 10 years.

The responsibility for deaths due to traumatic incidents lies with each individual workplace, said Mustard.

“If the workers in a sector and the employers in that sector make it the highest priority to ensure that all of aspects of work have been assessed for hazards, and that all of the hazards have been mitigated, people are safe,” he said. “It’s when diligence relaxes, when care is not taken, when attention is focused elsewhere that these hazards rise up and bite people.”

Unsafe workplaces
The 10 most dangerous industries

IndustryAccidents* (per 100,000 workers)Disease*(per 100,000 workers)
Mining, quarrying and oil wells16.630.5
Logging and forestry37.92.7
Fishing and trapping33.31.2
Transportation and storage11.42.3
Government services2.63.1
Wholesale trade4.01.5
Agriculture and related services3.40.3
Communication and other utilities1.91.0

*Figures represent yearly averages for the period 1996 - 2004.Source: The Centre for the Study of Living Standards

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