Workers Health & Safety Centre

Remembrance and action — Westray Mine disaster 25 years later

Workers, their families and representatives gathered today at the Westray Miners Memorial Park in Pictou, Nova Scotia to mourn the tragic deaths of 26 miners.

An inquiry into the deaths would label them more than tragic, as more than an explosion of coal dust and methane killed the miners. Of the Westray story, inquiry commissioner, Justice K. Peter Richard concluded, “It is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference.”

Among many recommendations Richard called for the implementation of federal legislation “necessary to ensure that corporate executives and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.”

Accountability has been elusive though. Twelve years of dedicated labour campaigns resulted in Bill C-45 amendments to the Criminal Code. Known as the Westray Bill, the amendments became law in 2004. Another 13 years have passed and the law suffers still from spotty and inconsistent enforcement.

Federal announcement on C-45 Enforcement

Fittingly, on the eve of Westray’s 25th anniversary, and thanks to a persistent labour lobby, federal labour and justice ministers recently committed to working with labour and other partners towards better Westray Law enforcement, including training for labour inspectors and law enforcement officials and sharing best practices for workplace fatality investigations across jurisdictions.
Many welcomed this announcement, including leaders from the United Steelworkers (USW), a driving force behind the push for corporate accountability.  “Our union has worked long and hard to stop the killing and enforce the law,” observes Ken Neumann, USW National Director. “We testified at the inquiry, lobbied for years to get the Criminal Code amendments now known as the Westray Law, and have campaigned to get it properly enforced.”

Neumann and many from the labour movement will participate in a number of community events to mark the Westray anniversary. In addition to a memorial service at Westray Miners Memorial Park, events include an early morning candlelight procession, a reading of “Hell’s History” by author Tom Sandborn at the New Glasgow public library and a reception at the Museum of Industry, featuring an exhibit to remember the “Tragedy of Westray.” The exhibit will remain on display until June 25, 2017.

Cautionary tale

Today, Westray remains a cautionary tale. Curragh Resources Inc., owners of Westray mine, received the J.T. Ryan safety award just eleven days before the mine explosion. Worldwide, workplace health and safety advocates warn governments risk worker lives as they shift towards voluntary measures and away from regulatory approaches.

In Ontario, an anticipated standard to recognize and accredit voluntary employer health and safety management systems has many concerned these programs will be neither superior, nor safe, and may reward employers for minimal legal compliance.

Related campaigns and resources:

USW Stop The Killing--Enforce the Law campaign

CLC statement on government announcement to help enforce Westray Law

OFL Kill A Worker Go To Jail campaign

Hell's History: The USW's Fight to Prevent Workplace Death and Injuries from the 1992 Westray Mine Disaster Through 2016

The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, Report of the Westray Mine Public Inquiry

For our part, the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) offers a range of resources and  training programs designed to help workplace parties fully comply with legal obligations, including a three-hour awareness program on Bill C-45, the Westray Bill. We also offer training programs to help employers meet the training and competency requirements for supervisors.
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To learn more:
Call:     1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a WHSC training services representative.