Time to get serious about worker safety

Two victims amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. | Photo courtesy of Times Asi

Two victims amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. | Photo courtesy of Times Asi

There’s one serial killer whose murder spree is worldwide and ongoing, but who rarely gets called out by name: corporate greed.

The International Labour Organization estimates that, every day, 6300 people worldwide are killed in workplace accidents or from disease or illness related to their occupation. That means more than two million working people a year have their lives cut tragically short.

The vast majority of these deaths are preventable. It’s entirely a matter of what society prioritizes: profits for the few or health and safety for the many. Governments love to use the rhetoric of law and order, but too often that just means criminalizing the poor while allowing big corporations to behave lawlessly.

There are extreme examples, like the Rana Plaza factory disaster last year in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which more than 1000 workers were killed. In that case, the building was visibly cracked and decaying. When workers raised concerns, they were ordered into the factory that would become their tomb.

This type of reckless profiteering is why labour movements have historically fought for and won the development of thoroughgoing regulation and safety standards. Some politicians disparage all this as mere ‘red tape’ that needs to be cut away. Indeed, recent decades have seen a rollback of regulations in many industries. On top of that, there’s a major problem with lack of enforcement of existing rules.

Take, for example, the case of the tragic 2012 mill explosion in Burns Lake, B.C. On Jan. 20 two years ago, a massive explosion destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill, killing two workers, injuring about 20 more and robbing the small town of its major source of employment. The dead, Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie, left behind grieving families, including three children each.

Last week, a major investigation by WorkSafeBC concluded that the explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill were preventable. The sawmill management had known for some time that the dust collection system was insufficient for the size and type of operation.

Inspections had identified the shortcoming of the dust collection system and the company was in the midst of an electrical upgrade that would have enabled them to improve dust control measures. One problem WorkSafeBC identified, however, was that production was not reduced during the electrical upgrade. Instead, it was increased.

This scenario rings true for anyone who has worked in a factory or mill. Speed up is always the name of the game, safety too often an annoyance or an afterthought. As a teenager, I worked in the old Nalley’s potato chip factory on Annacis Island. The summer I started there, a labour dispute was raging. Ownership was threatening to move production to the U.S. if workers asked for too much in their new contract. The truth was the company was letting the factory rot: line breakdowns and grease fires were commonplace, since the infrastructure was so old. Only solidarity and alertness amongst the workers themselves prevented serious injuries or worse.

Despite the damning conclusions from WorkSafeBC about the Burns Lake disaster, none of the company’s management has been charged – and by all accounts they won’t be, in part due to procedural errors during the investigation.

“Crown counsel said some of the evidence collected by the province’s chief workplace safety regulator would likely be found inadmissible, therefore making any regulatory charges unlikely to succeed in court. The B.C. Criminal Justice Branch cited a lack of search warrants and noted a company official had not been instructed of the right to remain silent when questioned,” the Vancouver Sun reported on Jan. 14.

B.C. opposition leader Adrian Dix, last week, was quick to criticize this announcement. Jim Sinclair and the B.C. Federation of Labour joined him in calling for a public review of this failure of the investigative process.

Premier Christy Clark has responded by asking John Dyble, head of the B.C. Public Service, to carry out a review of the investigation.

We should watch closely for the results. Managers and owners whose actions or inactions contribute to deaths at work should face real legal consequences. Greed is on a killing spree, and it’s time we got serious about ending it.