National Day of Mourning is April 28th
On a winter’s day in February, 1891, my great-grandfather was working in a coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia, when in an instant his world changed. An explosion deep in the mine erupted, sending fire sweeping through the tunnels. About 125 of his friends and coworkers died that day. With the rest of the community, he helped carry out the dead from the shattered pits. The story passed down in my family how he found the worst was carrying out the bodies of the children, some as young as ten, who worked beside him in the mine.
How Did This Happen?
How did this disaster happen? The inquiry never reached a firm conclusion, but such incidents were common in those days, when mines filled with coal dust were time bombs waiting for a spark. One might think the mine operators would have learned, but two more high-fatality accidents happened in Springhill (1956 and 1958), before the mine was closed for good.
In some ways, we live in a lucky era. Most of us who go to work each day expect to return home alive and well. Historically, though, the workplace could be a deathtrap. Although even the earliest farming and gathering communities faced hazards, the Industrial Revolution brought more people into contact with dangerous working conditions than ever. Workers in factories could be pulled into unguarded machinery by when a sleeve or hair got caught in the gears. Transportation workers could be crushed by runaway vehicles or blown up by exploding boilers. Mines were always hazardous. Collapses and explosions were common, but deadly “black lung disease” that destroyed miners’ ability to breathe was an even greater killer of those who worked in the pits.
Even the most artistic of workers weren’t safe. Ballerinas in the 19th century often died when their gauzy, flammable costumes caught fire from the open gaslights that lined the stage.
We like to believe that these conditions are long behind us. That workers are protected by regulations, technology and a society that believes people shouldn’t have to die while trying to earn a living. Unfortunately, while this is truer than it once was, we have still a long way to go to ensure every worker can return safely to his or her loved ones at the end of each shift.
In 2016, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, there were close to 1,000 workplace deaths across Canada. Furthermore, there were nearly a quarter of a million claims for lost time due to work-related injury or disease. That means that on average about 3 workers a day don’t make it home. It’s notable that the old Industrial Revolution killers, such as explosions, falls and transportation accidents have been replaced by one category that eclipses all the others – “Exposure to harmful substances or environments” was responsible for nearly two out of three workplace deaths in 2014-2016.
A Day for Awareness
Awareness of the problem is the first step in solving it. In 1984, the Canadian Labour Congress declared April 28th to be a National Day of Mourning in Canada, to commemorate those who have died, been injured or become ill due to workplace-related hazards. The Day of Mourning was officially adopted by the Canadian government on February 1, 1991. The date has also been embraced by groups such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and is recognized by the United Nations as the World Day for Safety and Health at Work.
Public ceremonies mark the day in many locations. Supporters wear black and yellow ribbons and observe a moment of silence at 11:00 to remember those who have lost their lives or health due to workplace accidents and exposures. Events are held by labour and safety groups as part of the commemoration. For example, in Ontario, a schedule of events can be found at Ontario National Day of Mourning Events. Many families are joining the Steps for Life event, walkathons that will take place in at least 30 Canadian communities to support Threads of Life. This national charitable organization is dedicated to helping families to heal after they’ve been affected by a traumatic workplace fatality, life-altering workplace injury or occupational disease
Nearly all Canadians are members of the workforce at some point in their lives, so workplace safety affects us all. Regulations such as the WHMIS hazard communication system help ensure we all get home to our loved ones alive and well. By supporting safety regulation and education, we can ensure that the dead will no longer have to be carried out of the workplace as my great-grandfather’s friends were.
How does your company observe National Day of Mourning? Let us know below.
If you have questions about hazard communication or other workplace safety regulations, please contact the regulatory staff at ICC Compliance Center Inc. 888-442-9628 in the USA, 888-977-4834 in Canada.