This Saturday, families of workers who have been killed or injured on the job will be commemorating their loved ones on the annual Day of Mourning; and many will once again join Canada’s unions in calling for better protections for the living. In the age of #metoo and #timesup, this important tradition takes on an added dimension, providing the opportunity to more widely address violence and harassment in the workplace.
For decades, the focus of this solemn day has understandably been on workplace accidents and exposure to dangerous materials like asbestos. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, there were 905 reported workplace deaths in 2016, and over 241, 508 claims accepted for lost time due to a work-related injury or disease.
Many tragic stories of loss and hurt will be highlighted on the Day of Mourning, including ones like those currently featured by Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. There is the pilot whose plane crashed during a routine flight, the young woman who fell off a scaffold to her death, and the father who succumbed to cancer after a tiny piece of asbestos entered his body. Far too many workers have perished on the job.
One way we honour their memories is to do all we can to make sure no one else’s family has to say goodbye prematurely, or struggle to care for their loved one. It also means we break the silence on violence and harassment in the workplace to better understand and prevent the full range of harmful behaviours that can occur. Without these critical conversations, employers and governments will have little incentive to act.
Take the heartbreaking case of the late Eric Donavan of Hazelbrook, P.E.I. The 47-year-old man had worked for over 17 years with a non-profit organization. By all accounts, he loved his work until a supervisor began to severely bully and harass him. He became increasingly anxious and stressed, eventually dying from a cardiac arrest.
After a three-year battle, the Workers’ Compensation Board of Prince Edward Island accepted the arguments of Donovan’s wife and doctor and awarded the family compensation. His case represents one of the rare glimpses into understanding the toll that workplace bullying and harassment can have.
“It’s astonishing how many people are saying that they have been in workplaces where there has been consistent, health-threatening and health-injurious bullying and where nothing has been done by supervisors,” said the family’s lawyer James W. Macnutt.
Earlier this year, a Saskatchewan family similarly received compensation after arguing that workplace bullying led to their loved one’s suicide.
The situation is acute for women workers, many of whom are working in caregiving professions including nurses, personal support workers, and teachers. Women workers are too often the target of workplace violence and harassment, including sexual and physical harassment or violence. Another risk is that domestic violence may also follow women to work. For some, the outcome can be fatal.
This Day of Mourning, Canada’s unions are urging workers to seek support if they are the victims of violence and harassment. This impacts every sector. For instance, a 2017 Public Service Employee Survey found that 18 per cent of public servants reported being harassed at work in the preceding two years. For front-line workers, including bus drivers, paramedics, flight attendants, call centre workers and many others – particularly those who work alone – the dangers are significant.
Working with Canada’s unions and employers, the federal government has developed strong regulations on workplace violence and federal Bill C-65 promises to finally address sexual harassment as a workplace hazard.
However, workers are also calling for new measures: whistleblower protection, to protect complainants from reprisal; the hiring of properly trained federal health and safety officers in appropriate numbers; and the recognition of domestic violence as a workplace hazard, as Ontario explicitly wrote into legislation following the workplace murders of Lori Dupont and Theresa Vince.
It’s time to collectively renew our commitment to ensuring that all workers are safe and supported at work.