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Under recognition of worker deaths impedes pursuit of prevention

Thousands of Ontarians die annually as a result of hazardous exposures at work, significantly more than the few hundred often cited during Day of Mourning events each April 28.
 
This is the central message of a document published by the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) as part of resources created annually for Day of Mourning.
 
Claims allowed by Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) have become the default statistics shared by government, media and others when discussing the number of workers killed, injured or made ill each year because of unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. For 2020, the most recent year for which published data is available, this data would have us believe just 324 workers were killed because of unsafe and unhealthy work.
 
“While each of these deaths are real and tragic they are an entirely inaccurate measure of the true toll of unsafe and unhealthy work,” says Andrew Mudge, executive director, WHSC. “The systematic and ongoing under recognition of work-related injury, illness and death effectively downplays the seriousness of the matter and undermines the need for greater regulatory and workplace efforts aimed at the creation of safer, healthier work.”

True toll of occupational death

Most deaths caused by exposure to work-related hazards are never reported to, or recognized by, the WSIB. This is particularly the case for cancer and other occupational illnesses with long latency periods between workplace exposure(s) and disease onset.
 
In a 2018 study, University of Ottawa researchers suggest an accurate picture of worker deaths would number between 9,800 and 13,200 Canadians — or 10 to 13 times higher than fatalities reported by Canadian compensation boards. For Ontario this would mean at least 3,240 worker deaths in 2020 as a result of hazardous exposures at work. And even these numbers, the authors of this study suggest, are conservative estimates.

True toll of occupational injury and illness

Under recognition of work-related injuries and illnesses is also significant. University of Washington researchers published evidence in 2019 suggesting even the most conservative estimates indicate half of work-related injuries and illnesses are not accurately reported to the appropriate regulatory authority. Ontario’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH) has published a wealth of research evidence over the past two decades suggesting a similar situation.
 
With the WSIB recognizing just over 150,000 workplace injury and illness claims for 2020, the real toll is likely well in excess of 300,000 injuries and illnesses suffered by workers annually.

True toll of work-related COVID-19

Even these statistics are likely underestimated considering the underreporting of COVID-19 cases caused by workplace transmission of the virus. As of March 31, 2022, the WSIB recognized just 119 work-related deaths because of COVID exposures. Allowed lost-time COVID claims as of April 25, 2022, totalled more than 40,000. However, given the lack of access to testing throughout Ontario these numbers are sure to only represent a fraction of work-related cases. Consider, for instance, the Ontario Science Table estimated as of April 6, 2022, we were seeing 100,000 to 120,000 daily cases from all sources, including the workplace. At the same time, the Science Table tells us Ontario workplace mobility indicators were at the second highest since December 2020, surpassed only in November 2021.

Prioritizing prevention this Day of Mourning

Recognition and accurate reporting of the true scope of worker injuries, illnesses and deaths is critical to inform the public, government regulators, employers and others of the full impact of unsafe and unhealthy work. This awareness can go some way to lending urgency to workplace and regulatory actions critical to the pursuit of prevention. 
 
“This April 28, let us reflect on the suffering experienced by all whose lives are impacted by workplace hazards left uncontrolled and not just the few whose claims are recognized by the WSIB,” says Mudge. “Though we can truly honour them by joining or recommitting to the fight for the living.” 
 
To learn more.
Day of Mourning WHSC resources 

Worker death stats need much more accuracy, says researchers
BC claim suppression study supports refocusing prevention strategies
WHSC fact sheet—A more accurate picture of worker disability, disease and death
 
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