Remembering Lives Lost on the Job

There’s a heightened sense of poignance on this year’s National Day of Mourning, which is marked today and every April 28 in Canada, to remember those who have died, were injured or made ill at work.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety notes:

“This year, this day takes on extra meaning as we express our gratitude to the healthcare workers on the front lines, grocery, transport, and service staff helping to keep communities running, and all the other essential personnel who have answered the call during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Your dedication and efforts are beyond measure. “

Earlier this  month, Ontario healthcare workers held a moment of silence for the 58-year old Brampton hospital cleaner who died of COVID-19, and the nearly thousand other healthcare workers in the province who have tested positive for the virus.

This year, labour and injured worker groups can’t hold in-person events, but they are finding other ways to observe the National Day of Mourning. Linda Reaume, president of the Chatham-Kent Labour Council remarked:

“With people working in a situation which is really not safe, we honour those people because we continually fight to have health and safety followed in workplaces. … After 38 years (of holding this event), we are still fighting the same battle, so we will not give up on workers’ rights to be safe when they go to work.”

While the pandemic has brought workplace injury and death into the spotlight, it’s important to remember that a staggering number of Canadians die at work or because of work every year. The most recent official statistics found that 951 people died of work-related causes, but a 2019 study published in the Journal of Canadian Labour Studies estimates the true number of workplace deaths could be 10 times higher.

The study finds that the biggest reason for underestimation is occupational cancer and disease. But other under- and non-reported work-related fatalities could come from excluded occupations (particularly farming), injury while commuting, presenteeism, and collateral relationships (for instance, spouses affected by asbestos transfer from work clothes). Additionally, one of the study authors notes that “between 10 and 17 per cent of annual suicides in Canada could be classified as work-related, representing a range of 400 to 800 fatalities each year.

 

Numbers, of course, never tell the whole picture. The family support organization Threads of Life reminds us of the personal level of human suffering caused by workplace fatality:

“If you think of the thousands of workers and families affected just in the three decades we’ve been observing Day of Mourning, it’s overwhelming. Each of those workers was a unique individual with likes and dislikes, favourite t-shirts, good and bad habits, goofy jokes, irritations, plans and loves. So on Day of Mourning we join with our Threads of Life families to honour and remember those individuals.”

Let us also acknowledge the risk and sacrifice involved in keeping the province running in the midst of a pandemic, and express our deep gratitude to all the essential workers in high-risk workplaces right now.