Other Provinces Urged to Learn from Mine Tragedy

Government inspectors deferred to the company's wishes

Other Provinces Urged to Learn
from Mine Tragedy

by Graeme Hamilton

This article appeared in
The Edmonton Journal
Edmonton, Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Carl Guptill was an experienced miner with a background in workplace safety when he first went down into the Westray coal mine in 1991.

The conditions he found at the Plymouth, Nova Scotia, mine shocked him. Fellow workers were "gassing out" – getting dizzy from the high methane levels underground. His supervisor told him to get rid of his safety glasses because there was no room for the safety-conscious on his crew. When he complained of dangerous conditions, he was told the company had thousands of applications from men ready to replace him.

He finally went to provincial mine inspectors after being sent to hospital with an injury suffered when he was ordered to work with a dim helmet lamp. But the Labour Department did a cursory investigation and dismissed the complaint.

He was labelled a malingerer and fired in January 1992. Four months later, Westray blew up, killing 26 miners.

In his report on the Westray disaster, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard cited the Guptill case as an example of the flagrant disregard for safety that caused the disaster.

"The inspectorate's actions in the Carl Guptill incident were a disservice to a miner with a legitimate complaint, and a clear message to other members of the Westray workforce that the inspectorate was not going to support them in any safety-related confrontation with the management," Richard wrote.

The report concluded that the explosion resulted from the combination of a company putting coal production ahead of its workers' safety and careless inspectors deferring to the company's wishes.

"Management failed, the inspectorate failed and the mine blew up," it said.

The United Steelworkers of America, the union that was in the process of certifying Westray workers when the blast occurred, hopes Richard's report will send a message to governments across Canada that companies can't be trusted to police themselves.

"In Ontario and Alberta, right now, there's a major push to deregulate occupational health and safety, to basically withdraw from an active role on the part of government," David Roberts, the lawyer who represented the United Steelworkers in front of the inquiry, said Tuesday.

The union is planning to use the report as the basis of a national campaign to improve workplace safety.

"The (mining) industry as a whole should be looking at this report and should not pretend that this is some kind of anomaly that would only happen in the backwoods of Nova Scotia," Roberts said.

Caroline Weber, an assistant professor of industrial relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., said the Ontario government sets workplace safety rules but does little to educate workers and employers.

Weber doubts the report – because it details an event in a sector of the economy that is not a big employer – will trigger a new awareness of workplace safety.

"In Canada, we're looking at about 1,000 workers killed every year. I think there's plenty of room for improvement in this area."

The report has caught the attention of the RCMP investigators and Nova Scotia Crown prosecutors working on the case against former Westray managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, who face charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence.

"We certainly are interested in it," RCMP Cpl. Brian Wride said

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