Labour Federation wants criminal investigation into all workplace deaths

By Joan Wark
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Halifax – The Nova Scotia Federation of Labour is raising serious concerns over the lack of charges under the Westray Law in the deaths of workers in Nova Scotia.  Nova Scotia Federation of Labour President Danny Cavanagh says that despite recent deaths of workers, no charges have been laid under the Westray Law.

The Westray Mining Disaster ultimately led to the creation of the “Westray” provision in the Criminal Code, which imposes upon people who direct the work of others the legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to workers or the public. The violation of this duty can lead to a conviction for criminal negligence and significant penalties, including imprisonment of up to 10 years where bodily harm results, or up to life imprisonment where death ensues.

“In the past 13 years, only four employers have been prosecuted under the Westray Law. We believe that this lack of enforcement is costing lives and too many workplace fatalities are never properly investigated and only a handful have resulted in criminal charges. When criminal negligence results in a worker’s death, it is a crime and should be treated that way,” says Cavanagh.

Recent deaths on the job in Nova Scotia have been investigated only as breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act instead of a more thorough criminal investigation. The fines typically ordered  in prosecutions under the Occupational Health and Safety Act  rarely amount to more than a slap on the wrist which  becomes  just part of the cost of doing business.  A conviction for criminal negligence  causing death allows a judge to impose a significant penalty proportionate to the crime.

We believe our judicial system is failing families when there is not a criminal investigation in workplace deaths. Cavanagh says the police have a responsibility under the Westray Law to pursue such criminal charges and they must not just turn such cases over to the Nova Scotia’s Occupational Health and Safety division. Says Cavanagh often the police are first on the scene but may not necessarily understand that they can take over the site under the provisions of the Westray Bill in a criminal investigation.

The Federation is demanding more accountability when a worker dies in the workplace we must ensure every avenue and every legal means is taken to ensure accountability and charges are laid when a criminal investigation happens. We believe that something needs to change when a worker dies at a worksite and those workplace accidents need to be treated as potential crime scenes.

Cavanagh says we can learn from mistakes like the one in Newfoundland & Labrador when a judge dismissed all charges because the RCMP failed to take photographs and secure the scene, and Occupational Health and Safety officials did not arrive until eight hours after the fall.

“We say it time that we truly begin to enforce the Westray Law in our province and we would hope that the employer organizations agree with us and work with us to ensure when warranted criminal charges are pursued and laid after a criminal investigation by police,” says Cavanagh.

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