Workers Health & Safety Centre

Peter Harkins: Worker Ally

Peter Harkins: Worker Ally
It’s nice to give something back to the community,” says a modest Peter Harkins. And give he does whether it’s by helping to organize Day of Mourning ceremonies in Timmins, by speaking to local high school students about the importance of health and safety or by coordinating conferences to educate his co-workers and others about specific workplace hazards.
A member of Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 599, Harkins is the fulltime health and safety representative at Falconbridge’s Metallurgical Division at Kidd Creek Mine in Timmins.
Harkins has quarterbacked a number of health and safety improvements at this large mining and metallurgical plant. To help the joint committee prioritize high risk areas says Harkins they had the workforce complete a health questionnaire. Musculoskeletal injuries were most commonly reported, not a surprise says Harkins since he’s processed compensation claims for many members.
Harkins reports they’ve come a long way though in successfully addressing many areas of concern. Among some of the workplace improvements he notes the redesign of paddles, used to skim waste from vats, to ensure a safe, neutral working posture. To address some of their manual material handling problems, a remote control hoist was introduced in one work area, eliminating the need for workers to lift 150 lb slabs from zinc cathodes.
Also a Workers Centre-qualified instructor, Harkins further credits training like the Musculoskeletal Injuries Prevention Program provided to joint committee members to help raise awareness of the issue. “Through health surveys and with training our members are learning that some of them are at risk of injury. But more importantly we give them an opportunity to look at and actively participate in the overall ergonomics program.”
While making inroads on the ergonomic front, Harkins has also been instrumental in dealing with more difficult issues around occupational disease. When it was learned that some workers at their sister plant in Rouyn, Quebec were diagnosed with chronic beryllium disease (CBD), Harkins undertook to research the hazard and contact experts in the United States. One worker at the Timmins site has since been diagnosed with CBD. Since then a company-wide control program has been implemented. For Harkins it’s a template for moving forward but insists there has to be ongoing improvement.
From this experience Harkins says, “I felt there wasn’t enough known about the hazards of beryllium. It was important to share this information.” With the full backing of his Local executive, Harkins set about organizing a recent one-day conference on beryllium to educate his membership and others about its health effects. The conference also drew interested senior representatives from Ontario government agencies.
Harkins’ contributions however aren’t restricted to the workplace. The father of three estimates he’s spoken to 1,500 Timmins area students in delivering the Young Worker Awareness Program. More recently he’s also become a member of the CAW National Environment Council.
Jeff Martin is president of CAW Local 599. “Peter goes above and beyond the call of duty and works tirelessly on behalf of our members and the whole Timmins community. He may be our fulltime health and safety representative but Peter would be involved even if he wasn’t. He’s a true health and safety activist.”