Ignoring safety may garner “corporate killing” charge

Commons committee calls for business leaders to be held criminally responsible

Corporate executives and directors could soon be held directly responsible for workplace injuries.

The House of Commons Justice Committee has passed a resolution calling on Justice Minister Anne McLellan to pass bill C-259, a private member’s bill, introduced by NDP leader Alexa McDonough.

Should it pass, the bill would amend the Criminal Code to impose criminal liability on corporate decision-makers who fail to insure their company maintains an appropriate level of occupational health and safety in the workplace, and introduce a criminal offence of “corporate killing.”

Vernon Edwards, director of occupational health and safety for the Ontario Federation of Labour, said some employers should go to jail if they willingly risk the lives of their workers and somebody is in fact killed.

“There are employers that have a complete, blatant disregard for human life,” said Edwards.

They will simply ignore basic health and safety precautions until someone gets killed and a message has to go to people at the top that they will be punished for such irresponsible behaviour.

If somebody out in the community acts recklessly, is warned to stop but continues to act recklessly until someone is killed, they will go to jail, he said.

“Why does the worker become a second class citizen as soon as they get to work?” he asked.

The recommendations stem from the public inquiry into the Westray mine explosion, in Nova Scotia that killed 26 workers in 1992. The inquiry found that the explosion could have been prevented had management complied with health and safety regulations, and called on the federal government to amend legislation so that corporate executives and directors would be held accountable for workplace safety. The United Steelworkers raised the issue of corporate criminal responsibility at the Westray inquiry and has been campaigning to have the Criminal Code changed to that end.

Fines that are in place for violating health and safety rules aren’t enough to deter all employers. “Some companies will actually budget for Ministry of Labour fines,” said Nancy Hutchison, a health and safety co-ordinator with the United Steelworkers, adding that some companies simply consider the fines to be the cost of doing business.

“We’re hoping that it (the charge of corporate killing) will never have to be used, that the threat will be enough,” said Hutchison. But obviously not enough is being done to deter health and safety negligence because the numbers of workplace fatalities across the country has not been going down.

If there is a fatality and there is evidence that the board knew there was a danger and they ignored it, then they could be charged and they could go to jail, she added.

Ideally it will be a strong enough deterrent for employers to pay attention to health and safety in their workplace and to actually follow their health and safety policies. “Westray had a very good policy, but they didn’t follow a word of it,” said Hutchison.

What has been happening across Canada is a watering down of legislation designed to protect workers, she said. Ontario’s labour ministry has statistics to show critical injuries are going down, but they have redefined critical injuries, she said. Breaking four fingers, for example, is no longer considered a critical injury. Those statistics can be hidden and manipulated but fatality rates cannot. And they have not been going down, she said.

As proof that employers will neglect the safety concerns of employees if they think they can get away with it, Edwards points to the number of deaths yearly from occupational disease. Aside from the three deaths that occur on the average day in Canadian workplaces recent research prepared for an inquiry into the Ontario Compensation System found that in Ontario as many as 6,000 people die each year from occupational disease.

Most notably, in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s it was well known that exposure to asbestos could be deadly but employers did not take steps to protect workers, he said. What’s more, asbestos was taken home on clothes and families were exposed to danger. There are documented cases of people dying from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and the only exposure came from a family member working with it, said Edwards.

“That could happen again today, if there is not enough of a deterrent to employers,” he said.

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