DEATH ON THE JOB can be an accident—or it can be a crime, like the crimes two companies in Quebec are accused of committing when three workers were killed, and five more injured, when their wood manufacturing operations in Beauceville, Quebec caught fire and exploded in September 2021.
The Crown has charged the two companies (Séchoirs de Beauce and Bois Ouvré de Beauceville) with three charges of negligence causing death and five charges of negligence causing bodily harm.
On the morning of Sept. 20, 2021, Mario Morin, Jean Lachance and Martin Roy tried to extinguish a fire that broke out while work was being done on the facility’s roof. An explosion killed all three and injured five other workers. All were members of the United Steelworkers union (USW)
“This is what workers have been asking for,” says Julie Hébert, the health and safety co-ordinator for the union.“We hope that this case will be a breakthrough and lead to more charges being brought when workers are killed and hurt on the job.”
The ‘Westray Law’
The Crown can press criminal charges against a private company under Section 217.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada, also known as the ‘Westray Law’—an amendment introduced in 2004 after more than a decade of lobbying led by the United Steelworkers, in the aftermath of the 1992 Westray Mine explosion in Nova Scotia that killed 26 miners.
The Westray Law imposes a legal duty on employers, to take all reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to workers performing any assigned work or task.
“These amendments were made so that companies could be held criminally responsible,” said Hébert, adding that these types of charges are rare.
One thousand and eighty-one (1,081) Canadian workers were killed on the job in 2021. The number killed each and every year since 2001 has always been 900 or more.
In the 19 years since the Westray amendments to the Criminal Code they have been utilized just 23 times to bring criminal negligence charges: 13 charges against corporations and 17 charges against individuals.
As of early 2022, only nine out of the 23 prosecutions launched using the Westray Law have been successful: seven against corporations and two against individuals. Sentences have been relatively minor
“Unfortunately, the authorities do not always investigate workplace incidents through a criminal lens,” noted Dominic Lemieux, United Steelworkers Quebec Director.
Martine Savard, the prosecutor in charge of this case, said although the case is criminal, company representatives will not face jail time, if found guilty.
“It’s really the company that is subject to a fine,” said Savard. “There is no maximum or minimum fine. So the court really has the power to impose the penalty that is appropriate in the circumstances”
Kill a worker—go to jail
“It’s quite simple, really—if you kill a worker, you go to jail,” says Ed Kent, USW Health, Safety and Environment rep for Western Canada.
Five workers died when a crane, working on a 25-storey tower in Vancouver, collapsed on them in July 2021. Whether or not someone should go to jail because of it depends on a report into the circumstances surrounding the deaths. The report is complete. The union wants it released. WorkSafeBC refuses.
“The families of the victims and the public deserve to know what happened and if any criminal elements were present,” says Kent. “If there were such elements, there needs to be accountability. If there weren’t, then we need to know what happened, so tragic accidents can be prevented in the future.”
“If employer negligence was found, then it’s time to enforce the law,” says Kent. “There need to be serious consequences for killing workers, more than just fines. Death cannot be a cost of doing business.”
An RCMP report into whether there was any criminality in the matter is still ongoing.
Stop the Killing
The USW leads a national campaign—Stop the Killing, Enforce the Law—which calls on governments at all levels to ensure greater training, direction and co-ordination among workplace safety and law enforcement authorities to ensure greater awareness and enforcement of the Westray Law.
For more information on USW’s campaign, see https://www.usw.ca/campaigns/about-the-stop-the-killing-campaign/
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