The death of a bricklayer at a construction site in Lower Sackville this week followed a familiar and disturbing pattern. The worker fell four metres from a scaffold, hit his head and died. The provincial labour department then ordered his employer, Darim Masonry of Bedford, to ensure that the scaffolding and guardrails were installed properly. The department said it would investigate to determine whether charges should be laid. It was the second accident at the site in less than a week. A few days earlier, a worker employed by another company broke his leg and arm after a lift platform struck a curb and fell over. The incidents called attention once again to Nova Scotia’s appalling occupational health and safety record: 90 workers hurt every day, 25 of them seriously; one killed on the job every two weeks. They also illustrated a tendency pointed out by NDP labour critic Maureen MacDonald, who says provincial safety inspectors tend to conduct investigations only after the fact. “We need a more proactive approach,” MacDonald says. She also criticizes the government for not imposing tougher regulations and bigger fines on employers instead of relying so heavily on advertising campaigns to persuade workers to be more careful.
MacDonald is referring to a series of TV ads launched in 2003 by the Workers’ Compensation Board, the provincial agency that provides workplace accident insurance to employers. The ads depict mock accident scenes with actors playing seriously injured workers who suddenly realize their lives have been ruined by carelessness on the job. The WCB is also spending $250,000 this year, about a third of its marketing budget, on notworthit.ca, a website aimed at workers under 25. Visitors to the site find an online “store” where they can get great deals on feet, legs, fingers and arms to replace ones lost in workplace accidents. In one of the virtual fitting rooms, a young man tries on a new face. “It’s harder than you think to find something that matches your face,” he says sadly. “You get used to the one you have until you lose it at some summer job to a chemical burn.”
The WCB’s communications director says this year’s “creepy” internet campaign aims to make young people aware of the consequences of workplace injuries. “The main message we want them to get is that they have rights and responsibilities on the job,” says Mary Kingston. “If they’re asked to do something unsafe, they have the right to talk to their supervisor about that, to find a safe way to do that work, or to refuse that work.”
But the NDP’s Maureen MacDonald says young workers are often in no position to speak up about safety. “It takes a very courageous, or a very foolhardy individual, depending on how you want to look at it, to really get into a potential conflict with their employer around issues of safety,” MacDonald says. “What we really need, rather than a public relations campaign, is the kind of good strong legislation that we’ve been waiting for a long time in this province.” MacDonald plans to reintroduce an NDP bill calling for fines of up to $250,000 and a maximum of two years in jail for employers who violate safety regulations. The party advocates hiring more safety inspectors (the province now has 29) and a full-time health and safety prosecutor. It’s also pushing workplace air-quality regulations and a ban on people working alone overnight in gas bars and convenience stores.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the NDP will actually make workplace safety a high enough priority to force changes that would reduce injuries and save lives. Without strong opposition pressure, the provincial government is likely to continue marketing job safety as though it were a lifestyle choice, using advertising that implicitly blames workers and workplace accident victims for the province’s abysmal safety record.
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