OFL delegates recommit to health and safety
Sometimes revisiting the past empowers us to go boldly forward. More than 1,000 delegates to November’s Ontario Federation of Labour convention did just that in renewing their commitment to occupational health and safety.
Day one, health and safety issues took centre stage and dominated much of the debate throughout the weeklong biennial convention held in Toronto. And what better way to motivate current activists about the potential for change than to recognize the efforts of their predecessors.
Former Ontario New Democratic Party Leader, Stephen Lewis, currently the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, was keynote speaker. He was leader of the official opposition in the Ontario Legislature for part of the 1970s when health and safety said Lewis, “transcended everything we were able to do as a party.” From the courage of Elliot Lake uranium miners to the outrageous levels of asbestos exposure endured by Johns Manville workers in Scarborough to the soaring rates of occupational disease experienced by workers at Bendix in Windsor, said Lewis, “The carnage was beyond our reckoning.” Debate in the Legislature and media coverage at the time was dominated by stories about worker suffering and calls for better health and safety laws. These determined efforts helped usher in Ontario’s first Occupational Health and Safety Act
25 years ago.
Lewis recognized colleagues, some working behind the scenes, who enabled the NDP to push health and safety onto the public policy agenda. Among those honoured with Lewis were Elie Martel, former NDP member of provincial parliament, who represented Sudbury East for 20 years and drove health and safety issues forward with astonishing determination; Linda Jolley, former OFL health and safety director and before that senior NDP researcher who built an argument for health and safety that was “utterly unanswerable” said Lewis; and Homer Sequin, a Steelworker activist, who with others showed dogged persistence working with Elliot Lake miners during their fight for basic health and safety rights.
For Lewis, “Health and safety should be the centerpiece of labour relations in any civilized society.” Newer activists appreciated hearing about past struggles says Debora De Angelis, chair, United Food and Commerical Workers National Youth Committee and OFL vice-president for youth. “Younger activists care about history too. I knew about these previous struggles but hearing about them in their larger historical context makes it more meaningful.”
Wayne Samuelson, OFL president, told convention delegates lives were saved because of these early contributions but recent events impart lessons equally as important. A visual and philosophical backdrop for his comments was the LifeQuilt
, a permanent memorial dedicated to young workers injured and killed on the job. Shirley Hickman, whose 21-year-old son Tim was killed in a workplace explosion, was on hand for the convention. She is inaugural president of Threads of Life: an Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support. In promising support for the project Samuelson introduced a powerful video. The faces of 100 young people killed on the job and now commemorated on the LifeQuilt
, float to the screen accompanied by the bittersweet sounds of young East Coast singer, Aselin Debison.
Few stories though galvanize public attention like Lewis Wheelan’s. Then a 19-year-old business student at Wilfred Laurier University, Wheelan took a summer job with a sub-contractor of Great Lakes Power in Sault Ste. Marie. While clearing brush his second day on the job, an energized power line broke and fell on Wheelan sending 7,200 volts of power coursing through his body. He quickly went from being an accomplished hockey and football player to a triple amputee, losing both legs, his right arm, his right shoulder and the middle finger of his left hand. Many know Lewis’s story from a gripping Toronto Star feature but none understand the depth of his struggle more than his parents Bob and Melanie who attended the convention.
Later, convention delegates passed a resolution to support the Wheelan’s call for a judicial inquiry into their son’s death and to close the loophole that allows businesses to write off health and safety fines as a tax deduction, something Bob Wheelan calls obscene. Through a plea bargain, Great Lakes Power was fined $250,000 under the Act. The contractor was fined $15,000. Charges against company officers or directors were dropped. The only outstanding charge is against Lewis’ co-worker.
Families like the Wheelan’s are often left with unanswered questions and denied access to police records and other key information. Delegates also passed a resolution calling for family access to all records on workplace injuries and fatalities and repeated demands for mandatory inquests into all workplace deaths. The resolution further called for mandatory secondary school presentations on health and safety and workers’ rights.
Broader policy issues contained in the OFL’s People’s Charter were also debated. Created over the last two years from ongoing discussion with hundreds of activists, labour and community organizations, the Charter is a policy blueprint for rebuilding Ontario. “Health and safety at work is a human right,” the Charter states. “Workers and their families have a right to expect that life, limb and health will not be sacrificed for a job…To make this a reality will take real prevention efforts, not public relations. It will require political will, public support and political accountability.”
Delegates supported repeated calls for the government to implement the regulatory and enforcement strategy laid out in “Labour’s Program for an Effective Enforcement System” an OFL policy document passed at its 1995 convention.
For Samuelson, “Lewis’ story marks a new chapter in health and safety.” Twenty-five years after Ontario’s first Occupational Health and Safety Act
, activists welcome Criminal Code amendments they hope will finally hold corporations and their leaders to account when workers are seriously injured or killed on the job.
From his perspective, Bob Wheelan thinks it’ll take major social change in the workplace and reformed health and safety enforcement and prosecution practices to prevent more senseless suffering. From thoughts his son had put to paper Wheelan says, “Lewis viewed himself as a subsidy of Great Lakes Power. He knew the first day on the job things weren’t done safely. The next day he was left for dead. All for a $12,000 contract to clear brush.”
Still, the Wheelan’s have hope and faith. “We optimistically believe that Lewis’ suffering and death will bring about positive change. There’s got to be a purpose, the suffering has gone far enough.” Wheelan says his son, who had planned to return to university this past fall, would have undoubtedly had a career helping people. “Lewis was always a real contributor. He was a talented athlete and although he wasn’t afraid to rough it up in the corners he never played with malice. He was a good sportsman. He played by the rules and he never took a penalty.”
Other health and safety policy resolutions passed at convention:
The OFL through the Canadian Labour Congress lobby the federal government to declare Day of Mourning a national statutory holiday;
OFL to launch, using available resources, a needlestick injury and sharps campaign aimed at securing a new regulation