Friday, April 29, 2016

Edmonton's Day of Mourning Ceremony

I took my daughter to the Edmonton Day of Mourning (for injured and killed workers) last night. It was a nice memorial in a lovely location. With the permission of the author, I have reprinted what I thought was the best speech (given by Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, the executive director of the Alberta Workers' Health Centre).

Honoured guests, sisters, brothers, fellow workers, my fellow people:

I know a worker who is in the process of being laid off. It was announced in the fall that job cuts were coming, but that there was a three month trial period whereby it was possible that some people would keep their jobs. The caveat: the workloads would increase (still the same amount of work but less people to do it), and employees demonstrating their “dedication” to the job would be considered for being kept on in the restructuring. 

Desperate to keep her job, her livelihood, she worked hard, and managed to make the first cut. Then another round began. And she is now anxiously, nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen.

The economic downturn has made this a familiar story. It has left many tens of thousands of workers in Alberta without jobs, and scrambling to find work. And those of us who do have jobs, and especially those of us without the protection of a union, will do almost anything to hold onto our jobs.

In a recession, health and safety becomes less of a priority than before. But in a recession, people still get hurt, get sick, and get killed at work. And our challenge is to not lose sight of the importance of making workplaces safer for everyone. In a recession, we must continue to fight, and fight even harder, for healthy and safe workplaces.

Today is the Day of Mourning, the one day of the year where we gather to remember those whose lives have been lost or whose lives have been changed by workplace injuries and illnesses.

The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board lists 125 people who died in Alberta last year from workplace incidents or exposures. Additionally, there are about 50,000 disabling injuries accepted by WCB every year. But research suggests that these numbers don’t tell the whole truth. That in fact the amount of injuries every year in Alberta is much higher, as much as 10 times higher. That’s 500,000 injuries every year. That’s 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 working people.

And a large part of that number is attributed to injuries that go unreported.

Major injuries tend to be reported at the same rate regardless of the unemployment rate, probably because they are harder to hide. But in times of recession, in times of higher unemployment, in times like these where we want to hold onto our jobs, minor injuries are less likely to be reported; exposures to hazards that take a long time to show up as occupational illnesses, are less likely to be reported.

This does a couple of things:

1. it paints a false picture of how many people are actually getting hurt.

2. non-reporting means the hazards responsible for the injury do not get identified, which means the workplace does not get fixed, and more people will get hurt or sick or die.

In a recession, workers tend to take whatever jobs we can get – temporary, multiple jobs – precarious work – to pay the bills and support our families either here or back home. Precarious work means less likelihood of reporting injuries or unsafe conditions. Under the table work means the same. Multiple jobs at multiple job sites present the possibility of exposure to certain hazards at levels much higher than the threshold limits established for a single job site. And as workers we become even more vulnerable to exploitation by bad employers looking to capitalize on our need to make a living.

Our Occupational Health and Safety system is complaint-driven; it relies largely on workers being confident enough to raise health and safety issues. And yet, research shows us that workers are more reluctant to report injuries when faced with possible job loss or retribution from bad employers. So in a recession, government enforcement becomes even more important.

I recently had the honour of meeting with some members of CIWAA – the Canadian Injured Workers Association of Alberta. There is a huge stigma attached to injured workers who are often blamed for their own injuries or, because chronic pain is largely invisible, are told it is “all in your head”. A workplace injury can last a lifetime, can turn lives inside out, ruin chances for meaningful employment, damage and destroy families and relationships. Add to this ongoing struggles with the compensation system, expensive pain medication that may or may not be covered, the health effects of the medication itself, and severe depression. As one injured worker told me, “We are not the people who were killed. We are the people who are suffering, who wish they would have died.”

And so the Day of Mourning must also be about recognizing the need for fair compensation and justice for people who have been injured, and who continue to suffer as a result of their injuries or illnesses.

This day, the National Day of Mourning, is filled with numbers. 125 fatalities, 50,000 injuries, 1 day of the year. So much in our world is about reducing things to numbers and statistics, under the guise of being able to better understand information. While there is a usefulness to this, we do so at the risk of forgetting what some of these numbers actually represent. For that matter, when we talk about workers – worker fatalities, worker injuries – we risk framing tragedy and loss as something that is confined to the workplace, something that does not reach out and touch the lives of the families and communities that the worker belonged to.

So, I am going to read the list of names of people who died last year as a result of workplace incident or exposure, to honour their memory and remind us to continue to fight for the living.

Afterwards, I believe we will be inviting people up to lay some wreaths at the base of the Broken Families Obelisk behind me.

When I read the names of the officially accepted fatalities for last year, please let us also remember those workers, those people who are not named: the farm and ranch workers who were not included; those workers who passed away from occupational diseases that were not reported to, or accepted by the WCB; those workers who continue to suffer from work-related injuries and diseases. And let us not forget that we are not just talking about workers, we are talking about family members, friends, coworkers, employees; we are talking about people.

And an injury to one is an injury to all.

Christian, 79, trauma — Colin, 56, motor vehicle accident — Robert, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Perry, 57, motor vehicle accident — Lorne, 60, trauma — Robert, 70, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Berne, 72, air crash — Lesley, 53, trauma — Norm, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Jacob, 81, motor vehicle accident — Paul, 72, asbestosis — Bob, 63, trauma — Carl, 94, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Norman, 78, cancer — Grant, 87, asbestosis — John, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — David, 61, silicosis — Fred, 87, asbestosis — Gordon, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — William, 82, asbestosis — Mark, 57, trauma — Vincent, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Kim, 45, trauma — Terence, 82, asbestosis — Dieter, 59, trauma — Steve, 84, asbestosis — David, 41, trauma — Sean, 42, trauma — Harry, 85, asbestosis — Paul, 69, silicosis — Brent, 49, trauma — Henry, 75, asbestosis — Verne, 77, asbestosis — Dawna, 55, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Brian, 61, pneumoconiosis — Wayne, 53, cancer — Marcel, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Hayley, 27, trauma — Steve, 79, asbestosis — Larry, 65, cancer — Terry, 66, cancer — Edward, 71, cancer — Eugene, 85, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Bruno, 87, mesothelioma — William, 78, asbestosis — Walter, 80, asbestosis — Jacob, 72, asbestosis — Robert, 69, mesothelioma — Domingo, 72, silicosis — Barry, 67, mesothelioma — Clarence, 78, mesothelioma — Walter, 72, asbestosis — George, 72, cancer — James, 54, mesothelioma — Donald, 71, mesothelioma — Sheldon, 67, mesothelioma — Stanley, 60, mesothelioma — Ronald, 71, mesothelioma — Dan, 72, cancer — Bogdan, 55, motor vehicle accident — Keith, 75, mesothelioma — Ken, 81, mesothelioma — Garry, 76, cancer — Edward, 61, cancer — Terrence, 48, cancer — Wayne, 59, motor vehicle accident — Belle, 89, mesothelioma — Frederick, 69, cancer — Paul, 40, motor vehicle accident — Rex, 65, mesothelioma — John, 87, cancer — Ryan, 29, motor vehicle accident — Mervin, 36, trauma — Gary, 35, motor vehicle accident — Romeo, 79, mesothelioma — John, 80, asbestosis — Dellis, 60, motor vehicle accident — James, 48, motor vehicle accident — James, 56, motor vehicle accident — Stanley, 65, heart disease — Medardo, 73, mesothelioma — Gerald, 63, trauma — Jordan, 21, motor vehicle accident — Arnold, 55, cancer — Zlatko, 79, cancer — Gerald, 79, trauma — Louis, 83, mesothelioma — Edward, 77, cancer — John, 70, mesothelioma — Abe, 29, motor vehicle accident — Stephen, 35, trauma — Fredrick, 55, trauma — David, 70, mesothelioma — Robert, 48, trauma — Kenneth, 86, motor vehicle accident — Bobby, 38, motor vehicle accident — Albert, 58, heart disease — Ian, 60, cancer — William, 38, air crash — Maryam, 35, trauma — Daniel, 35, trauma — Christopher, 31, motor vehicle accident — Dale, 65, motor vehicle accident — Nabeel, 33, air crash — Francois, 62, cancer — Hally, 50, trauma — David, 37, trauma — Donald, 80, trauma — Regan, 29, motor vehicle accident — John, 74, mesothelioma — Peter, 51, trauma — Kevin, 54, motor vehicle accident — Walter, 74, mesothelioma — Gary, 68, trauma — Fuad, 33, trauma — Stephen, 55, air crash — Wesley, 65, trauma — Manmeet, 35, trauma — Dean, 23, trauma — Walter, 55, trauma — Keith, 49, trauma — Edward, 59, trauma — Karanpal, 35, trauma — Ricky, 41, trauma — Marc, 44, trauma

I think Jared's speech as pretty moving and on point. Several times during the reading of the list of the fallen, Jessica turned to me and said "s/he was so young" or that's a "lot of dead workers". It is a bit of a shame that schools don't acknowledge fallen workers as part of their curriculum.

-- Bob Barnetson

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