One of the things we don’t usually talk about at the Day of Mourning is why these workers—our friends and partners and our parents and sometimes our children—died on the job.
We don’t talk about that because, maybe, it’s kind of gauche. Or it feels a bit disrespectful.
But we should talk about it. We should talk about why they died because that’s the starting point if we want to protect the living. So that next year we’re mourning fewer workers.
So why did 162 workers die—and tens of thousands of others get terribly hurt—on the job last year in Alberta? And why does that happen every year?
In part, it’s because our employers organize our work unsafely. Basically, they’re endangering us. They put hazards in our workplaces that they know can injure and kill us.
How many of you routinely face understaffing? So you have to handle a patient or a client or a prisoner or a project by yourself. When really there should be two or three of us doing that job.
In the private-sector, employers understaff to make a buck. It’s the profit imperative: their trading our health—and sometimes our lives—for money
In the public-sector, it’s a little different, right? We face understaffing because there is no political will to pay the true cost of public services. So the costs get offloaded to us. We see it in the form of wage freezes. And we see it in the form of hiring freezes.
Hiring freezes and understaffing that they create translates into injury and sometimes death for public-sector workers. In effect, our bosses and Alberta politicians they report to are trading our health to minimize public expenditures so they can cut taxes for corporations and for the wealthy,
Even more frustrating, the government let’s our employers injure us. The inspection cycle in Alberta workplaces is roughly once every 17 years---and that’s way better than it has been historically. And, despite hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries each year, the government prosecutes fewer than 20 employers each year.
So if you’re an employer thinking about ignoring safety rules because they’re a hassle or whatever your excuse is, you know there’s almost no chance you’re going to get caught. And if you do, there’s almost no chance of a consequence. You’re just gonna get told to follow the law.
And that an insane way to enforce laws that protect people’s lives. It doesn’t work and we have 162 examples of that here today. Maybe we figure that our fellow government workers—Alberta’s health and safety inspectors—are likely doing the best they can.
And, you know what, probably true. They are doing the best they are, given the circumstances. But what needs to change are those circumstances.
It needs to be unacceptable to injure and kill workers in Alberta. Not “oh, that’s too bad” unacceptable. It needs to be “well, you’re going to jail.”
So how do we get there?
We can start by demanding that every workplace gets inspected at least once every five years. It’s really the least the government can do.
We can demand inspection reports get publicized—just like food inspectors publish their inspection results—so we know which employers don’t care about our safety.
We can demand employers get fined for every violation that puts a worker in danger.
And we can demand that employers who injure and kill us go to jail.
These are the things we could do to prevent workers from dying in this next year.
Achieving those things requires concerted effort by workers. And it requires political courage—something that no Alberta politicians because we don’t take them to task for their cowardice. But we should.
-- Bob Barnetson