Mining deaths spark concern in Ontario

But province on the right track in review, says association president

A mining tragedy in northern Ontario has renewed scrutiny of the industry’s safety practices — and further underscored the need for the province’s ongoing mining safety review.

On May 6, Marc Methe, 34, and Norm Bissaillon, 49, died after a ground collapse at First Nickel’s Lockerby Mine near Sudbury, Ont.

There is a joint employer-union investigation underway at the mine, and the Ministry of Labour is also investigating.

The fatalities came only one month after another mining fatality in the Sudbury area — and there have been many more incidents, according France Gélinas, the MPP for Nickel Belt, the provincial riding where Lockerby Mine is located.

“Since I was elected six years ago, there have been more than six fatalities in my riding alone of people working in the mines. That does not include very serious accidents,” said Gélinas. “Over the last 30 years, there have been dozens and hundreds of people getting hurt in our mines. And basically, every time there’s an inquest, that inquest often brings forward good recommendations. Those recommendations tend to be implemented where the accident took place, but it doesn’t seem like the best practice gets shared industry-wide.”

George Gritziotis, Ontario’s chief prevention officer for the Ministry of Labour, said in a statement the deaths were “unacceptable.”

“We must find better ways of protecting people who go into mines every day to earn a living. No job is worth a life. All of us have the responsibility to work together to do what we can to stop these senseless tragedies from happening again,” he said.

These latest fatalities have set off alarm bells about mining safety issues, said Gélinas.

“Anybody that hadn’t heard the alarm bells, heard them this time,” she said.

Provincial safety review

Ontario is currently conducting a one-year mining health, safety and prevention review, which will involve expert advice from an advisory group of industry, labour and health and safety representatives — as well as public and stakeholder input.

So far, the review is on the right track, according to Chris Hodgson, president of the Ontario Mining Association in Toronto.

“I think they’ve got it right so far — they’ve got a good panel, they’ve got good working groups — they’ve divided into six sub-panels basically, six working groups with different topics,” he said.

The mining industry does have a good record in the province, but there is more work to be done, said Hodgson.

“We’ve got a good safety record in Ontario — in terms of mining safety, we’re one of the best in the world. We’re also the second safest sector in Ontario’s economy, behind education, in terms of lost-time injuries. Unfortunately, we still have some fatalities,” he said.

“When you go to work, you should be confident that you will come home safe and sound. So we’ve got more work to be done. Even though we’ve got a good record, it can get better. So that’s why we welcome this review.”

Hopefully, the collaborative approach will help the industry reach its goal of zero harm in the workplace, he said.

“We hope that by working collaboratively with labour and management and government, we hope they keep that model and improve the model in terms of fatalities,” he said. “The old confrontational approach didn’t work — and by collaborating, we’ve had huge improvements to safety in Ontario.”

Gélinas agrees a collaborative approach is the best one.

“There seems to be right now more of a willingness to participate than there was before. So we’re hopeful good things (will) come from the review,” she said.

But she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of calling for an inquest — something she and her party, the NDP, have called for in the past.

“If they run into roadblocks, if they’re not able to do their work fully, then we in the NDP continue to believe that the power of an inquiry to mandate people to testify under oath, to request papers, to enter premises, etcetera, may still be needed,” she said.

“Right now, there is quite a bit of goodwill from all involved to try to do better, and to try to make sure we don’t have another person die at work. And hopefully the goodwill will continue. If it was to derail, then an inquiry would be needed.”

Enforcement tools

Investigations after a workplace fatality often involve a company and/or union investigation, and a Ministry of Labour investigation.

However, in certain cases, there is also the possibility of a criminal investigation.

Commonly known as the Westray Bill — named for the 1992 Westray coal mining disaster that saw 26 worker fatalities — the 2004 law allows organizations to be held criminally liable for violations that result in injury or death.

But the Westray Bill isn’t used very often, said University of Ottawa criminologist Steven Bittle — despite calls from several labour groups for appropriate enforcement of the law.

The Westray Bill is not often used partly because the legislation is still not widely known, said Bittle.

“It’s just not something that is known to police or provincial health and safety regulators. They don’t know about the legislation, they’re not used to investigating workplace injury and deaths as criminal matters. So it’s a bit about knowledge, it’s a bit about capacity to undertake these kinds of investigations — and that’s not atypical for new pieces of legislation generally. But this law, really, has been around for 10 years,” he said.

There’s also the issue that criminal law has not historically been set up to deal with these kinds of offenses, said Bittle.

“(It) hasn’t really contemplated until very recently the kinds of offenses that are committed by corporations or organizations. So there are some limits to the law itself that haven’t been worked through due to the lack of cases in prosecution in order to determine how exactly the law is going to apply in these circumstances.”

But better enforcement of the Westray Bill won’t be enough, said Bittle — we also need to change the way we think and speak about workplace “accidents.”

“If we look at these thousand-odd deaths that occur annually in Canada in the workplace, not all of them are going to be criminal offenses, not all of them are going to involve an amount of negligence that involves some sort of criminal element,” he said.

“But at the same time, research shows that a majority of these offenses involve some kind of breach of legal (requirements)... So in that respect, there was a failure on an organization’s part to do what they were supposed to do. So therefore to call them accidents I think is a bit dismissive of the situation.”

Better enforcement is not about legal retribution, said Bittle — it’s about ensuring workplaces are as safe as possible.

“There’s every reason to believe that properly enforced laws, including provincial regulatory laws and criminal laws, can help in forcing corporations and senior executives to take workplace safety more seriously,” he said.

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