Workers Health & Safety Centre

Westray Mine Disaster: after 30 years justice demands more

It’s been 30 years since the Westray mine explosion in Pictou County, Nova Scotia cut short the lives of 26 miners and inspired a movement for corporate criminal responsibility. 
A heroic effort by rescuers recovered just 15 bodies. Like Day of Mourning (April 28) monuments, a memorial was established lest we forget this heart-wrenching and preventable loss of life on May 9, 1992. The monument, located in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, is erected at the approximate location where the 11 men who couldn’t be reached remain. It stands for all intents and purposes as a tombstone for those robbed of a proper burial. 
To mark this milestone anniversary of the disaster, hundreds marched to the monument in Westray Miners Memorial Park where a memorial service and celebration of life followed. Here, family members of the men killed shared the devastating impact these preventable deaths had on their lives. They also explained the comfort they experience in attending the memorial services alongside other family members of victims and the many more who attended to show their respect or to pledge their support to the shared journey for justice.
Just prior to the deadly explosion United Steelworkers union (USW) had concluded a successful organizing drive at Westray. The certification bid died with the mine and the men in it. USW commitment to the community however lived on.

Prevention matters

“Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Westray disaster, Steelworkers are in Pictou County to vow to continue our fight for justice for the 26 miners and their families,” said Marty Warren, USW National Director for Canada. “Our union recommits to fighting for safer workplaces until no worker, family or community has to experience such tragedy. We will not stop until there are no more Westrays and no more deaths on the job.”
Workers Health & Safety Centre Executive Director, Andrew Mudge was among those attending the service. “You would have to be made of stone not to be moved by the outpouring of emotion today,” says Mudge. “This is why occupational health and safety prevention efforts matter. Why we at WHSC are proud to support USW and all working towards workplaces that leave our bodies and dignity intact.”
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Earlier in the day, high school students in Pictou County and across Nova Scotia participated in an outreach program focused on the affect the Westray disaster has had on workplace safety and health and the work that remains. A virtual roundtable was also held exploring the history of the Westray disaster and resulting changes to Canada’s Criminal Code (more below). Participants included family members of the Westray victims along with representatives of the USW and the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.
Part of this history lesson was a look at the public inquiry into the circumstances of the explosion caused by a build-up of methane gas and coal dust that uncovered negligence at every turn. In the final report of the inquiry, Commissioner Justice K. Peter Richard explained how the Westray story is one of “Incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference.”
Despite these scathing findings, no corporation or individual was ever successfully prosecuted for the 26 fatalities.

Justice sought

To help remedy the situation as Andrew Mudge explained in his Day of Mourning remarks this year, “Justice Richard’s 800-page report put forward 74 recommendations including the creation of a new criminal law to make it more possible to hold companies and their executives to account. Occupational health laws across Canada require employers to take every precaution reasonable to safeguard workers. When this duty of care is not met, they can be subject to compliance orders and prosecution. But when this breach amounts to a wanton or reckless disregard for the lives and safety of workers resulting in death or bodily harm, justice demands more. Or so argued Justice Richard. The Canadian labour movement, and USW in particular, agreed. Following a 12-year campaign, Criminal Code changes embodied in Bill C-45, also known as the ‘Westray Law’, were finally won in 2004.”
Unfortunately, unless the Westray law is better enforced, it will be rendered a paper tiger. In anticipation of the 30th Westray Anniversary, the USW recently published a legal report detailing the 23 incidents to date (April 2022) where the Westray amendments have been utilized resulting in criminal negligence charges against 13 corporations and 17 individuals. All toll, just seven of these corporations and two individuals have been successfully prosecuted. In only one case has an individual been sentenced and actually spent time behind bars.  
In this same report, the USW state unequivocally, the corporate criminal liability provisions in the Criminal Code, are “woefully underutilized.”
“In Canada, we continue to see about 1,000 workplace fatalities every year, as well as thousands of deaths from occupational disease that go unrecognized, and hundreds of thousands of serious, often life-altering workplace injuries,” said Myles Sullivan, USW District 6 Director (Ontario and Atlantic Canada). “Proper use of the Westray Law would go a long way in showing employers that ‘business as usual’ could mean a jail term for a CEO.”
The USW’s national campaign, Stop the Killing, Enforce the Law, targets all levels of government, law enforcement, attorneys general, and Crown prosecutors. They are not alone, however, in pursuing these goals. Family members and friends of the miners killed 30 years ago, for instance, continue to call for stronger enforcement of the Westray Law.

Training matters

To this end, the USW campaign specifically calls for increased training for law enforcement and Crown prosecutors in using the Westray Law and the appointment of dedicated police officers and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute workplace fatalities when gross negligence is a contributing factor.
For our part, WHSC offers a range of information resources and training programs designed to help workplace parties fully comply with, and even exceed, legal obligations, including a three-hour awareness program on Bill C-45, the Westray Law. We also offer training programs to help employers meet the training obligations for provincially and federally regulated joint health and safety committees and competency requirements for supervisors.

Want to read more about the Westray mine disaster? 
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
Corporate Criminal Liability 2004-2022
Want to read related WHSC news?
City of Ottawa politicians call for criminal investigations when workers killed
Worker death leads to criminal charges for northern mining company
Prison sentence for manager in 2009 swing stage tragedy
Justice demand more: a more accurate picture of worker disability, disease and death

To learn more:
Call: 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a WHSC training services representative. Or contact one of 14 reps directly.

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