Workers Health & Safety Centre

James St. John: Building awareness

James St. John: Building awareness
Like clockwork, every Monday morning at 7:00 a.m., James St. John, along with fellow worker representative Jason Addison and management representative Howie Sparks, conduct a workplace inspection. No small task when the total workforce consists of some 2,000 building trades workers employed as part of the current phase of the multibillion dollar Terminal Development Project at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
St. John is a member of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Local 721 and worker co-chair of one of three joint health and safety committees at the site. Employed by ADF/DCM Erectors, a certified health and safety member and also a steward for his union local, St. John considers himself an advocate for his fellow workers. “The biggest problem we face,” says St. John, “is a lack of knowledge of workplace hazards. If I can play a role in relaying information back to the workers about the hazards and how to control them then I’m glad to help.”
Health and safety issues on the project have run the gamut from Hepatitis C and SARS to violence and fall arrest equipment. With thousands of workers on site and constantly changing working conditions it’s difficult to get information to workers says St. James, but not impossible.  
Along with the information that is exchanged at monthly meetings of the site’s joint health and safety and worker trades’ committees, St. John says the workplace parties have developed and distributed site safety bulletins on a variety of topics including ceramic fibres and emergency response. This is supplemented by weekly tool box talks on health and safety issues.
Needless to say, St. John has often had to drop his own tools of the trade to deal with health and safety matters. Starting in September however, he and two other worker representatives will be able to devote all their time to health and safety. In an agreement negotiated by the Toronto and Central Ontario Building and Construction Trades Council and PCL/Aecon Joint Venture, all contractors on this phase of the Terminal Development Project will pool monies to fund the salaries of three fulltime worker health and safety representatives.  
Jay Peterson, business manager of the Toronto and Central Ontario Building and Construction Trades Council says the agreement is unprecedented. And with activists like St. John he’s hoping to ensure a higher degree of protection for their members on project sites. “James is very thorough and meticulous. He’s thrown many challenges on a daily basis yet he always brings forward solutions along with the problems. Because of his approach issues get resolved.” 
St. John says these new partnerships wouldn’t happen without the support of union locals, the building trade’s council and enlightened employers. He sees these negotiated positions as a critical next step in protecting and educating workers. “It’s all about justice for workers. We want to see everyone protected from injury and illness and we want to see them return safely home at the end of each work day.”