Thirty years ago today, 26 miners died in an instant when methane gas and coal dust exploded in the Westray Coal Mine in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County.
To call this catastrophe unnecessary would be an understatement. Workers repeatedly warned about extremely dangerous conditions and practices; the company neglected safety training and equipment and fired one of the workers who made safety complaints. Yet only two Westray managers ever faced trial; the process ended without convictions — and without justice for the Westray miners and their families.
It took 11 years and relentless pressure from Canadian unions, especially the United Steelworkers, for the federal government to finally introduce the Westray Law, s. 217.1 of the Criminal Code. It holds managers and corporate directors criminally responsible when their safety violations cause a worker’s injury or death.
Yet we’re still far from the point where negligent employers face those consequences. All too often, the justice system fails workers: Investigations are under-resourced; many police service members are still unfamiliar with workplace safety and the Westray Law; and criminal charges frequently aren’t even considered until far too late in the process, if at all.
Without timely investigation and charges, the Westray Law is meaningless — as we saw last September when the BC Prosecution Service decided to stay proceedings against Peter Kiewit Sons Co. in the death of Sam Fitzpatrick more than a decade earlier. While criminal investigations of workplace deaths have improved, much more needs to be done.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Westray disaster, we renew our call on the BC government to take these measures immediately:
- dedicate a Crown prosecutor to deal with workplace fatalities and serious injuries,
- train police services throughout BC on the Westray Law’s provisions, and
- make police investigations mandatory in all workplace fatalities and serious injuries.
Let’s ensure that every employer understands their responsibility for their workers’ safety. And let’s ensure that those who would endanger their workers for the sake of cutting corners face the deterrent of the full weight of our justice system.