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The following is a special online feature article for CUPE’s national health and safety publication, The Canary. Subscribe to The Canary, and check out past editions.

The deaths of 26 coal miners at the Westray mine beneath Plymouth, NS in 1992 marked a turning point in Canadian health and safety.

Following a methane gas explosion so powerful that it blew the top off the mine entrance a mile above, shattering windows and shaking houses in nearby towns, Canadians watched on as rescuers sought every avenue to find survivors. Eventually the sad truth came to bear. All of the miners at work that day had been killed.

The event was a great tragedy for all Canadians. But for health and safety activists across the country, the deaths of these miners became a call to arms to fight for improvements to workplace inspections and the enforcement of health and safety laws across the country. Today, following the twentieth anniversary of the Westray tragedy, Canadian laws protecting the health and safety of workers have improved, but proper inspections and enforcement remains a serious problem. There are still more than 1,000 work-related deaths per year in Canada—a much higher rate than many developed countries.

What is Westray?

The Westray mine was an underground coal mine, opened in September 1991 in Plymouth, Pictou County, Nova Scotia.  Though initially claimed to be a state of the art operation, using the latest in mining technology and computerized safety monitoring devices, safety problems plagued the mine from the beginning. There were three major cave-ins in the first month of operation. Shortly after that, one Westray miner, Carl Guptill, informed the provincial labour department of a series of health and safety concerns. Unfortunately, those concerns were ignored and Guptill was fired by the mining company.

Just months later, at 5:18 Saturday morning on May 9, 1992, a powerful explosion killed all 26 miners working that day.

  • View photos of the Westray memorial. Photos: United Steelworkers Union

The Westray inquiry

About a week after the explosion, the Nova Scotia government ordered a public inquiry. The Nova Scotia government conducted a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster and the related safety issues. CUPE was an active participant in the inquiry. The findings were published late in 1997, with the report stating that the mine was mismanaged, that miners’ safety was ignored, and that poor oversight by government regulators had led to the disaster.

The inquiry’s report included many recommendations covering topics from training and ventilation to mine rescue procedures. One key element of the report was a recommendation that the government of Nova Scotia “review its occupational health and safety legislation and take whatever steps necessary to ensure that officers and directors of corporations doing business in this province are held properly accountable for the failure of the corporation to secure and maintain a safe workplace.”  However, it would take several years and extensive lobbying by labour unions before the law would be changed to reflect that recommendation.

Charges and trial

On October 5, 1992, the mining company was charged with 52 violations under the health and safety act. After several months, the Crown stayed the charges under the health and safety act to protect potential criminal charges. In April of 1993, two managers were charged with manslaughter, but those charges were immediately quashed by a judge. In July, new charges were laid but after a lengthy trial the charges were stayed and a court of appeals ruled that a new trial should be held. Even though the Supreme Court upheld the order for a new trial, prosecutors decided not to further pursue the charges because they determined there was not enough evidence to secure convictions.

Nobody was ever held legally accountable for the deaths of the 26 miners.

Labour lobbies for stronger legislation

In light of the court case and results, the CLC and its affiliates lobbied the federal government to improve health and safety laws so as to make it a crime when worksite mismanagement leads to death. Private members bills were introduced to the House of Commons, but repeatedly died when parliamentary sessions ended. Finally, in late 2003—more than 11 years after the disaster—Bill C-45, known as the Westray bill, passed to amend section 217.1 of the Criminal Code as follows:

“217.1 Every one who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”

This change in law created rules for establishing criminal liability to organizations for the acts of their representatives. It establishes a legal duty for all persons “directing the work of others” to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public.

Enforcement of section 217.1

Despite approximately 8,000 deaths on the job in Canada since the bill was passed, there have been very few attempts to prosecute employers under the new law. Unlike occupational health and safety legislation across the country, which is usually enforced by labour inspectors, police and Crown attorneys are responsible for enforcing the Canadian Criminal Code. So when a serious accident occurs on a worksite, police and the Crown must investigate and determine whether any criminal charges should be laid. Unfortunately, many prosecutors are hesitant to move forward with criminal charges, frequently citing a lack of evidence.

Are we safer?

Until more employers are held accountable under the criminal code, Canadian workers will continue to die on the job at a high rate.

The Canadian Labour Congress has recently developed a guideline, Death & Injury at Work: A guide to investigating corporate criminal negligence in the event of a serious injury or fatality in a workplace. The guide offers instructions and tips to support workers pursuing health and safety changes in their workplace. 

Too often, employers and governments are failing their responsibility to ensure workers have a safe and healthy workplace. The miners at Westray recognized unsafe conditions, but didn’t have the same legal recourse to pursue change. They paid for it with their lives, while the employer escaped responsibility.

Today, thanks to many hard fought battles by unions, we have the law on our side. But with governments and employers continuing to avoid accountability, it’s up to us, again, to pursue better enforcement of the law, and to make sure that all workers come home safe and healthy at the end of the day.

  • Listen to the interview “Hour One: The Legacy of Westray, Essay: Kyla Graduates”

    Andy King, former director for Occupational Health and Safety for the United Steelworkers of Canada, and Nancy Hutchison, former miner and the current secretary-treasurer with the Ontario Federation of Labour, speak to Michael Enright, host of CBC’s The Sunday Edition.