Workers in a dangerous time

Every year on April 28 a Day of Mourning is observed for workers killed or injured on the job. The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada recorded 852 workplace deaths in Canada in 2015. If we also consider the 232,629 claims that year for lost time due to a work-related injury or disease, it’s clear that working can be a dangerous activity.

We tend to think that physically demanding jobs carry the greatest risk, but abuse and wilful neglect can lurk where you’d least expect it.

Consider the tragic story of Eric Donovan, a group-home worker in PEI who, according to a Workers Compensation Board (WCB) ruling in April, was bullied to death on the job. It is a stunning case, believed to be a first in Canada, showing just how much power a supervisor or employer can have over a worker’s life.

Donovan had complained for years that his supervisor was mistreating him, and his wife, who bravely fought the WCB for three years, testified that he felt under stress all the time. His family doctor noted how often he “voiced how difficult the [work] relationship was, the sense of being bullied and the resultant stress, anxiety and panic attacks.” The autopsy could find no physical reason for the heart attack that killed him in November 2013.

Such abuse is not new, though hopefully this ruling will begin to make it much more rare. But regardless of improvements in defining unacceptable work practices, too many employers will continue ignoring unsafe conditions until they are forced to make changes, as was the case in Winnipeg earlier this year.

The Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1505 has long expressed concerns with the way bus drivers are treated by the public. They experience physical violence, are sworn at, spit on, have coffee thrown at them, and are sometimes threatened with weapons. ATU President John Callahan has been asking the City of Winnipeg for years to better protect bus operators and provide them with training on how to diffuse dangerous situations. He worried it was just a matter of time before something really serious happened.

Then in the early hours of February 14, at the end of his shift, Irvine Fraser was trying to remove a sleeping passenger from his bus. The passenger turned violent, a scuffle ensued and he attacked the operator with a knife. Fraser died of his injuries shortly after.

This violent death has left bus operators shaken and scared, and they are quitting or retiring at a much higher rate than before the attack. They clearly do not believe the employer is taking the necessary measures to protect them on the job. The transit union continues pushing Winnipeg Transit to make meaningful changes.

Gut-wrenching as these two stories are, we need to multiply them by 800 or 900—whatever this year’s tally is for workers killed on the job—to understand the enormity of so many lives being torn from their families.

On another front, we also need to consider the challenges coming from the rapidly growing “sharing economy.”

Ride-share company Lyft is bragging about one of its drivers who worked through her labour pains to drop off one last customer before checking in to the hospital to give birth. Such dedication—what a trooper! Never mind that she or her baby might have needed emergency care, or that driving while in labour could have led to a serious accident.

Workers in the “sharing” economy find themselves in a murky Orwellian world; they are workers but not employees, operating in a retrograde Wild West, with no health and safety regulations or benefits. How do we prevent this unregulated frontier from spreading, and workplace accident numbers from growing?

Workers will face new challenges as they always have—by organizing and fighting back. Just ask Donovan’s widow, or the members of ATU 1505.


Lynne Fernandez is the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at the CCPA’s Manitoba office. This is the first edition of her new column in the Monitor, Work Life, which will look at work in Canada in all its diversity and challenges—from labour legislation, migrant workers and women in the workplace (paid and otherwise) to technological change, the sharing economy and wider political struggles.

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