Workers Health & Safety Centre

Worker death stats need much more accuracy, say researchers

Significant underestimation of work-related deaths in Canada
Work-related fatalities should be counted among the leading causes of death in Canada, concludes researchers examining a broad number of data sources.
They argue, once worker deaths are properly recognized, greater urgency for government and workplace prevention efforts would follow.
“The systematic underestimation of deaths at work obscures the range of harms that workers routinely face, effectively downplaying the seriousness of the matter and the need for the state to intervene through law and policy,” writes a team of researchers lead by Steven Bittle, an associate professor, criminology, University of Ottawa.
Data published annually by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC), and widely cited by government, media and others, would have us believe less than 1,000 Canadians die each year because of unsafe and unhealthy work. However, these deaths only include those deaths filed with provincial compensation boards and ultimately accepted by them.
“This situation is akin to crime statistics only ever including solved homicides, therein leaving the impression that attempted murders, unsolved murders, or suspicious deaths are not a concern,” writes Bittle and his associates.
In their study entitled, Work-Related Deaths in Canada, the researchers suggest a more accurate picture of worker deaths in Canada would number between 9,800 and 13,200 Canadians killed annually by work-related injuries and illness—between 10 and 13 times higher than fatalities reported by the AWCBC. Although, even this staggering toll, the report concludes, is a conservative estimate.

Expanding the notion of work-related death

From the literature, the researchers conclude unrecognized occupational disease is by far the main reason for the underestimation of worker deaths. Primary killers are those workplace hazards that cause related cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and heart disease. Although, the study also points to the underreporting of traumatic deaths in AWCBC data, which exclude for instance, self-employed workers and a number of workers in the agricultural sector.
Bittle and his team of researchers attribute the underestimation of worker deaths to “social construction” – “a problem that only reinforces the historic belief that people are injured or sickened at work in limited (accidental) circumstances.” As such, the researchers invite a new narrative that broadens the view of what constitutes work-related death. They suggest some suicides and commuting fatalities should be counted among work-related death figures. Furthermore, they suggest non-working victims of unsafe and unhealthy work should also be included in official work-related fatality data. By way of example, they would include the many families of workers who brought home asbestos on their clothes and subsequently died of asbestos-related disease, or the 47 killed in the Lac-Megantic, Quebec runaway train explosion of 2013.

From scope of the problem to prevention

Counting the dead however isn’t an end in itself. Bittle et el ultimately conclude, “What is counted matters because the data not only shape the perceived seriousness of the matter, but also set the parameters of relevant legal and policy debates and decisions. … Any effort at improving data collection on workplace fatalities is about much more than just making changes to the ways in which we count work-related deaths. Instead, it is an essential first step in documenting the scope of the problem and, subsequently, ensuring that relevant OHS laws and policies adequately target the underlying causes of unsafe workplaces.”
To this end, the researchers call on the federal government and its provincial/territorial counterparts to work together to develop reliable methods and sources to track all work-related fatalities in Canada.
Here in Ontario, the government recently announced a review of occupational cancers to be led by Dr. Paul Demers, Director of Ontario’s Occupational Cancer Research Centre. The review will focus on how best to use scientific evidence and practices from other jurisdictions for determining and compensating work-related cancers.
However, the review has also been asked to address how scientific evidence on occupational cancers should guide the Ministry of Labour in developing legislative policy. Several answers to this question have already been provided by Demers (as principal investigator) and other prominent researchers in a ground breaking report released in fall 2017. Among the many recommendations were those to expand the Ontario’s Toxics Reduction Act to specifically address worker exposure and health issues, the number of substances covered under the Act and to provide support for workplaces through a government-funded institution like the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Massachusetts. Instead, the government introduced Bill 66 last December, which included a proposal to repeal the Toxics Reduction Act.
Want to read additional related resources?
Beyond WSIB Statistics: 2007-2016 (WHSC)  
Employers found to suppress work-related injury and illness claims (WHSC)
Work-related injuries, illness and death are alarmingly underreported (WHSC)
Canadian Environmental Law Association submission on proposed repeal of Toxics Reduction Act 

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