B.C. was recently given the opportunity to take a critical step forward in workplace safety when opposition labour critic and NDP MLA Harry Bains introduced a motion calling for the government to pursue the prosecution of corporate executives and directors responsible for workers' health and safety in cases of negligence causing workplace death or serious injury.
Current provisions under the Criminal Code, such as the Westray Law passed in 2003, have never been enforced because provincial mechanisms to sufficiently investigate and prosecute are inadequate.
It’s time for the government to step up and give teeth to legislation already in place and provide bodies such as the crown and WorkSafeBC with the tools necessary to stop employers, who have negligently put workers lives at risk.
We must take action by dedicating a crown prosecutor to deal with workplace fatalities and train police services and WorkSafeBC officers on Section 217.1 of the Criminal Code.
I wish such provisions had been in place when I began working in the construction industry more than 35 years ago.
I remember every member I have had to watch die from exposure to asbestos.
I remember every face and every family affected.
I remember every time I have had to take that long walk down a hospital hallway or shuffle into a funeral hall to say goodbye to a co-worker gone too soon.
Mesothelioma and asbestosis are some of the cruelest and most painful ways for a person to die.
This horrible and insidious disease is stealing the lives of my members and friends, and in every case, it was 100 per cent preventable.
After nearly 40 years as an insulator, I know I have not sat by my last deathbed. In the 1970s, we didn’t know what we know now about asbestos exposure.
I rise every morning, along with dozens of my members, and wonder whether that pulp mill expansion in 1979, the hotel demolition in 1982 or the hospital re-build in 1985 is going to catch up with me.
I wish I were the last of a generation of tradespeople, who has to live with this fear.
But, I’m not.
I am joined by workers at AM Environmental, Tri City Hazmat, Surrey Hazmat and Pro Scan Environmental, who were repeatedly exposed to asbestos by their employer in 2010.
Despite repeated orders by WorkSafeBC, the exposures didn’t stop until the B.C. Court of Appeal found their owner in contempt for continuing to operate his asbestos and drywall removal business regardless of a court order that he stop doing such work.
I am joined by workers from Seattle Environmental and Skylite Building Maintenance, whose owner received more than 290 asbestos-related orders from WorkSafeBC, and did not stop performing asbestos related work until a B.C. Court Supreme Court justice found him in contempt.
In both of these cases, the owners were not charged criminally, even though the Criminal Code of Canada holds employers accountable for criminally negligent acts in the workplace.
It is clear from the above actions that some employers will never stop endangering the lives of workers, unless someone stops them.
A WorkSafeBC order, or hundreds of orders, is not enough.
We can’t go back in time and undo the exposures we faced in this industry.
But, we can draw a line today and put provisions in place that will give justice to future workers, who are exposed.
I hope members of the Legislative Assembly on both sides of the House will support Harry Bains’ motion and strengthen the protocols needed to criminally prosecute employers that are endangering workers.
Lee Loftus is the business manager with BC Insulators (formerly the Asbestos Workers). Send comments or questions to email@example.com.