Workers Health & Safety Centre

Unmasking the truth: The need for precautionary measures

A Day of Mourning message from Dave Killham, WHSC Executive Director

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) has heard from many of you working in workplaces deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. Your concerns are our concerns.

For the record let me say, your work is valued, but nothing is more important than your well-being. You deserve what the law provides, your employer must take every reasonable precaution in the circumstances to protect your health and safety. And when reasonable precautions are not in place, you deserve vigorous enforcement of this law. Many have taken this responsibility to heart. But many have not.

Across Ontario and around the world we will observe April 28, our National Day of Mourning for workers injured, killed or made ill by hazardous exposures at work. This year amid the ongoing pandemic, we mourn every worker death, including recent lives lost to COVID-19, because precautions were absent.

Preventable deaths

We already know the devastation of uncontrolled infectious disease. Ontario was the global epicentre of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Among those infected, nearly half were health care workers, including two nurses who died. The independent SARS Commission issued many recommendations to improve Ontario’s health care, public health and worker safety systems. Among these recommendations was one which advised, “The Ministry of Labour provide in a timely manner clear direction and information regarding guidelines for work refusals, pregnant workers and immunocompromised workers.”

Former Ontario Federation of Labour president and current president and chair of WHSC’s board of directors, Wayne Samuelson told us, after the official SARS report had been published, he had visited the report’s author, the late, Justice Archie Campbell. Over lunch, Justice Campbell told president Samuelson when all was said and done, the one take away from what he learned could be summed up in two words, “precautionary principle.” In other words, Justice Campbell reinforced we should not wait for scientific certainty, or the next inevitable pandemic, before preparing reasonable precautions for workers and others. In his report Justice Campbell added, “If we do not learn from SARS and we do not make the government fix the problems that remain, we will pay a terrible price in the next pandemic.” And so here we are.

Worker action

Of course, in addition to employer responsibility for workplace health and safety, workers have hard-won rights. These rights are summarized as the right to know about hazards, the right to refuse unsafe work when safeguards are not in place and the right to participate in the identification of hazards and their solutions.
Confronted by COVID-19, worker representatives on the frontlines know this is not the time for timid actions. Joint health and safety committees and worker representatives have been insisting upon proper safeguards and their role in pursuit of them. Fortunately, when these efforts are thwarted, unions are stepping up to ensure their members are not left defenseless against this deadly virus. In doing this, they send a clear message all workers should be shown the same regard.

In recent days we have seen their collective determination prevail.
  • Citing the precautionary principle, Ontario Superior Court Justice E.M. Morgan ruled in favour of the Ontario Nurses’ Association application for an injunction against long-term care homes. Justice Morgan ruled the homes must comply with Public Health Directives and respect the professional and clinical judgement of nurses when deciding how to protect themselves including decisions about personal protective equipment.
  • SEIU Healthcare secured an order from the Ontario Labour Relations Board that enforces greater protection for their members at three for-profit nursing homes, including sending a Ministry of Labour inspector to physically visit the workplaces and conduct inspections under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act on a weekly basis. This comes after member, Christine Mandegarian, a personal support worker at one of the care homes died tragically and unnecessarily from COVID-19. (On behalf of us all at WHSC I send our heart-felt condolences to sister Mandegarian’s family.)
  • Jail guards represented by Ontario Public Service Employees Union succeeded in pushing the government to issue surgical masks to all workers and visitors in the province’s jails, as social (physical) distancing in most facilities is impossible. Other recent gains include more active screening for COVID-19 and enhanced cleaning.
  • After work refusals and COVID-19 positive tests among six maintenance workers at Toronto Transit Commission’s Queensway Garage, Toronto Public Health is advising employees who worked at least one shift at the facility between April 12 and April 22 to stay home and monitor for symptoms until May 1. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 continues to call for mass testing.

Apart but together

On April 28 let’s also draw strength from worker action and from each other. Public health directives limit our ability to gather in our workplaces and communities for Day of Mourning events this year. But we can come together virtually as friends and families have done throughout this crisis. WHSC encourages you and others in your household and workplace to join us as we participate in virtual events hosted by our labour and community partners across Ontario. Check out the event listing posted on our dedicated Day of Mourning web page and this year’s brochure with suggestions for creating your own online event. There you will also find analysis of Workplace Safety & Insurance Board statistics entitled, Reflecting Reality.
Be sure to check the WHSC website resources on confronting COVID-19 in the workplace. Watch for news of upcoming WHSC webinars and virtual training sessions, including our newly developed training course on COVID-19 too. Again, your concerns are our concerns. Together we can reveal the truth. Reasonable precautions for worker health and safety must be guided by the precautionary principle immediately. In the fight for the living, we cannot afford to wait for more rulings, orders and worker deaths before our workplaces do the right thing.