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Be safe, not sorry and listen to the unions.  Those are the key lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak in Ontario and BC.

Nancy Johnson, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist with the Ontario Nursing Association gave a brief lesson in SARS history to CUPE delegates at Tuesday’s Health and Safety Forum.

Johnson outlined some of the key recommendations from Justice Archie Campbell’s seminal report (Spring of Fear) on how SARS was handled.  Campbell found that union activists were often the most informed, and had the most reasonable advice on health and safety matters.

Campbell noted that in BC there were just 46 suspected cases of SARS, while in Ontario, there were 46 deaths and over 330 victims with serious lung infections.  Key to the difference was an OH&S infrastructure in BC that listened to unions and took steps to prevent spread of infection.

By contrast “there was a system failure in Ontario because there was no health and safety culture,” said Johnson.

Campbell’s recommended giving workers the right to ‘the precautionary principal’ or ‘be safe, not sorry’ rather than wait until science confirms a threat exists.  
“Scientific knowledge changes constantly,” said Johnson “We shouldn’t be driven by the scientific dogma of yesterday or today.  Can we afford to wait forever before we protect ourselves?  If there is any indication of danger, reasonable steps should be taken to protect people.”

Campbell’s report found that hospitals are dangerous places to work, as dangerous as mines and factories, but without the health and safety culture.
“In a health care setting, hand washing should be as basic as wearing safety boots on construction sites,” said Johnson.

But while many unions have taken lessons from SARS, Johnson says too many government officials are still not getting it. “Experts are not getting their act together, employers are resisting because of the cost of equipment,” said Johnson.

Are we ready for another pandemic?  

“I have seen progress, we are better than we were then,” said Johnson. “But I field calls daily from members who are fighting for basic OH&S rights.  We are not ready enough.  We are better, but we are not ready enough.”

H1N1 played out to be less lethal than thought, but the virus could still mutate; so reasonable planning is necessary.”

“As justice Campbell said ‘never forget nature’s capacity to toss a curve ball when its least expected’”

“Justice Campbell also said listen to unions, now it’s time to make ourselves heard.”