Labour leaders say Westray Law is rarely enforced 30 years after deadly explosion

Thirty years after a methane explosion ripped through the Westray coal mine, killing 26 miners, labour leaders say legislation brought in to hold companies and people criminally responsible for workplace deaths is rarely enforced.

“There’s been less than 20 charges across the country,” said Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour.

An inquiry into the Westray Mine disaster, which happened in Plymouth, N.S., on May 9, 1992, revealed hazardous working conditions. It highlighted a series of problems including poor planning, collapsed roofs, inadequate ventilation and dangerous levels of coal dust. There was the failure of managers and inspectors. It was called an accident waiting to happen.

Out of the Westray inquiry came 74 recommendations and, according to David Roberts, the lawyer who represented the surviving miners at the inquiry, our modern system of occupational health and safety.

“Everything from the right to refuse protection against retaliation if you raise safety issues, the ability to appeal the failure safety officers to make an order,” Roberts said.

The inquiry led to the Westray Law. It was deemed landmark legislation to hold companies and individuals criminally responsible for workplace deaths. But labour leaders say the bill is rarely enforced since it became law in 2004.

“There’s been about 458 workers that were killed at or because of work since 2004 and in Nova Scotia we've had one charge under the Westray legislation that ended in acquittal,” Cavanagh said.

“So, it hasn't been well used. We all had big hopes for it as setting a new standard for health and safety and I'm not convinced that happened,” said Kevin Kelloway, a professor at Saint Mary’s University, and the Canada research chair of Occupational Health Psychology.

Kelloway points out that every jurisdiction has its own set of occupational health and safety laws. More often, authorities choose that route.

“Company gets a fine. In really egregious cases they might have to do training for other companies,” Kelloway said. “Not at all the same as a criminal charge.”

Last year in Nova Scotia, 20 people died at work or because of work-related injuries. Nova Scotia's Federation of Labour wants police to better educated on the Westray Law.

“So when they get on scene of a workplace accident, that they immediately start a criminal investigation and see where that leads them,” Cavanagh said.

Following the explosion at Westray, two mine managers were charged for criminal negligence and manslaughter, but those charges were later dropped. At the time, prosecutors said there was not enough evidence for a conviction.