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April 29, 2010

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Time to put an end to ‘near misses’

…Text of a speech by Barry O’Neill, delivered in Surrey City Council chambers on the National Day of Mourning, April 28, 2010.

I can’t say I’m pleased to be here, because I’m never pleased at these events—what we’re dealing with is very serious. But what I wanted to say first of all is greetings from the 80,000 members that we represent across British Columbia. We’re doing similar kinds of ceremonies all across this province and in fact, all across this country. My background is as an occupational health and safety activist. And I would like to report that, according to the stats this year, we’ve done a little bit better than we’ve done in the past. No family or no worker should ever think that they might get up in the morning and say goodbye to their spouse or their partner and their children and for one second think that they might not return home. So it is important that we recognize the kinds of things that are going on across the country with regards to what’s happening on the job every day. And though I’d like to say that it is encouraging to see that the number of workers killed on the job this year was less than in 2008, I don’t think we should be overly proud of that number.

Of course, we’re working to a goal of zero, and that needs to happen, but when we think that we did so moderately better this year, we need to understand that this year in British Columbia, as well as in other places, we had a huge downturn in the economy; that tens of thousands of workers weren’t at work in the manufacturing industry and the construction industry and the forest industry. So it’s unfortunate that, when those kinds of things happen, we still can say that in fact the numbers went down. You know, the saying with the Canadian Labour Congress is that ‘We need to mourn for the dead and fight for the living.’ For me, of course, the latter is the most important thing—not to at all diminish the kinds of concerns that people have about workers not coming home. But what we can do now is move forward. And unfortunately what I see in my career as a health and safety activist, it’s not always what you can see. I think that WorkSafe BC and others in the past have understood that the kinds of things that are happening at work aren’t always something that you can see.

The kinds of increases we’re seeing as a result of technology, in British Columbia and throughout our country, I see in unprecedented new numbers that have been recognized of musculo-skeletal injuries. Those kinds of things that take us forward in technology often don’t understand that the whole issue of ergonomics and those kinds of injuries are as well important. And surprisingly enough, they’re probably one of the easiest problems to resolve. It’s all about educating people on how we make things happen and how they do their work. I know, talking to a number of members in Surrey, that there is a recognition that certainly OH&S on the job is a very important element of what we do every day, and should be. Over the years, we often see that accidents happen as a result of a worker who might say ‘You know, a couple of weeks ago, the same thing happened. I didn’t get hurt, but I’ve recognized this happening on a number of occasions.’ I think it’s up to joint health and safety committees to pay close attention to things like workplace audits, to make sure that those near misses are corrected. Near misses always turn into accidents.

We need to spend a lot more time I think fighting to make sure that the work site environment is good, that workers are comfortable, and that those kinds of things that you may have noticed—those things that might have created a problem in the past—are reported. That commitment, I think, needs to be there for all of us. I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to speak to any number of families who have lost members as a result of a workplace injury that could have been prevented. And my guess is, and I’m not sure what the numbers are, but when we call these things ‘accidents’, we need to understand that the vast majority of these so-called ‘accidents’ are preventable: from a worker’s point of view, from a manager’s point of view, nobody wants anybody for any one reason to pay the ultimate sacrifice. But, as importantly, people—employers, workers—don’t want to have an injury that will go on with them for the rest of their life.

I think that these ceremonies, and these kinds of events are an opportunity for us to reaffirm our position that we need to pay more attention to what’s happening in job sites. It’s good for workers, it’s good for employers, but most importantly, it’s good for communities that their citizens—those that built the communities that we live in—come home safe and retire healthy. I want to thank the City of Surrey as well as Local 402 for asking me to come out and speak for a few moments. But the real work starts when you leave this room. Start to think more seriously about a friend or a neighbor who was injured either critically or significantly in this work year. Numbers don’t mean very much at the end of the day, and you talk to any one family whether or not they’re part of the 176, 114, whether they’re young or whether they’re old really makes no difference to that family when they’ve lost a loved one that they shouldn’t have lost. So with that, I would close with saying I hope that everyone in this room just takes a moment, not on April 28 every year, but takes a moment every day of their working life to remember that what has happened to those families, and what could be a better workplace, is up to that worker and the team that they work with. Thank you very much for allowing me a moment to speak and I’m hoping that this year is a safer year for all workers in all communities in British Columbia.

Thank you very much.

Barry O’Neill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, British Columbia division.