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O’Neill calls for an end to ‘near misses’ as Day of Mourning events held throughout B.C.

CUPE BC president Barry O’Neill summed up this year’s National Day of Mourning events yesterday by calling on union members and employers alike to work together to reduce preventable workplace accidents and eliminate “near misses” altogether.

Speaking in the council chambers at Surrey City Hall, during a ceremony to honour workers killed or injured on the job last year, O’Neill urged CUPE members, Surrey council, and the public not to be complacent about workplace safety—nor to regard last year’s reduced fatality count in B.C. with too much optimism.

This year in British Columbia, as well as in other places, we had a huge downturn in the economy,” he said. “Tens of thousands of workers weren’t at work in the manufacturing industry and the construction industry and the forest industry. So it’s unfortunate that, when those kinds of things happen, we still can say that in fact the numbers went down.”

New technology plays a role

O’Neill, drawing from his experience as a health and safety activist, noted that many accidents in today’s workplaces are caused by invisible factors.

The kinds of increases we’re seeing as a result of technology I see in unprecedented new numbers of musculo-skeletal injuries,” said O’Neill. “Those kinds of things that take us forward in technology often don’t understand the whole issue of ergonomics. Surprisingly enough, they’re probably one of the easiest problems to solve.”

O’Neill said that joint health and safety committees need to pay closer attention to workplace audits to make sure that ‘near misses’ are corrected.

Near misses always turn into accidents,” he said. “We need to spend a lot more time, I think, fighting to make sure that those kinds of things that you may have noticed, things that might have created a problem in the past, are reported.”

The Surrey Day of Mourning event was co-organized by the City of Surrey and CUPE 402.

CUPE 402 president Laurie Larsen read the Worker’s Day of Mourning statement, and Acting Mayor Judy Villeneuve read a statement by Surrey Mayor Diane Watts—herself recovering from a weekend car accident while on official duty—pledging the City of Surrey’s recommitment to accident prevention.

The City of Surrey places the utmost importance on the safety of its employees,” the mayor’s statement said. “We must all continue to work together to ensure that we maintain a high level of safety in our respective work environments.”

Tom Lauritzen, regional prevention manager for Worksafe BC, called for a “cultural and attitudinal change in our communities” that would make workplace safety a top priority for everyone.

“As an officer and manager, I have been involved in too many accident scenes that will now be embedded in my memories for the rest of my time,” said Lauritzen. “I bet every person here knows at least one person who has suffered from an industrial accident. For that person, and for those that come to the job each day ready and able to do their work, we must make things better. The status quo is not acceptable.”

Higher standards needed

At Vancouver City Hall, flags flew at half-mast in recognition of workers that had lost their lives on the job in 2009. 

CUPE 15 president Paul Faoro, speaking on behalf of all seven unions representing civic employees in Vancouver, brought life to some of the numbers typically quoted on the Day of Mourning—including the fact, for example, that more than two million people worldwide die from occupational accidents or diseases every year.

Faoro noted that six of the 121 workers killed in B.C. last year were young workers who may have lacked adequate training. Speaking about the 29 miners killed in the Massey Energy mine explosion in West Virginia on April 5, Faoro noted that several safety violations were reported in the weeks before the explosion: the mine was cited for cracking and collapsing of mine walls, ventilation problems, drill dust and inadequate air quality.

No one should be at risk,” said Faoro. “Let’s look after each other so we all can go home after work.”

CUPE 1004 president Mike Jackson and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson placed a wreath in front of the plaque dedicated to those who lost their lives on the job, and a minute of silence was observed.

We renew our commitment to eliminate workplace deaths and injuries.  It’s the least we can do for the spouses, children, parents, families and friends of those workers,” said Robertson. The Vancouver mayor thanked the joint health and safety committees and urged the provincial and federal governments to step up and enforce regulations.

Governments need to act

In Burnaby, CUPE 23 president Rick Kotar joined Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan in proclaiming the official Day of Mourning as a day not only to mourn for victims of workplace accidents and disease but also to remember the supreme sacrifice they have been forced to make in order to earn a living.

It’s also a day to call on governments to enact tougher occupational health and safety standards, and more effective compensation, and a day to rededicate ourselves to the goal of making Canada’s workplaces safer, the proclamation said.

Managers and administrators must take responsibility for ensuring that the workplace is safe - It falls on all of us to redouble our efforts to protect all workers,” said Corrigan. 

On Vancouver Island, CUPE BC secretary-treasurer Mark Hancock spoke at the City of Victoria’s Day of Mourning event in Centennial Square.

The numbers may have been reduced last year, but there are still 121 families out there who lost a father, mother, son or daughter,” said Hancock. “No worker should ever get up in the morning thinking that this will be the last time they ever kiss their partner or their child when they go to work.”

Hancock noted that CUPE National has constructed a monument at its Ottawa headquarters commemorating members who have been killed over the years.

When you walk into the building on the right hand side, it’s a fantastic thing to see, but it also makes you really think. On this day, we must not only remember the dead but fight for the living. Our focus should always be on getting that fatality number to zero.”

For images of Day of Mourning events held throughout B.C. visit our gallery.