The Government of Alberta has announced a new partnership with ten different police agencies across the province to define protocols for the investigation of serious workplace occupational health and safety (OHS) incidents.
The agreement is titled the “Westray Memorandum of Understanding”, named for the Westray Mine disaster in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, which killed 26 underground miners on May 9, 1992. The release coincides with the National Day of Mourning, which commemorates workers that have died on the job. This year, the National Day of Mourning comes just days before the 25th anniversary of the Westray mine incident.
A subsequent inquiry into that incident found that the disaster could have been prevented by better management and government oversight. In response, the federal government amended the Criminal Code to permit criminal charges against worksite supervisors, managers and employers in cases of serious workplace injuries or fatalities.
Since the 2004 amendments to the Criminal Code, there have been 11 prosecutions in Canada, leading to three convictions and one person imprisoned. There have not yet been any such prosecutions in Alberta.
Although the police and government have worked together in the past in the investigation of workplace incidents, the Westray Memorandum of Understanding formally sets out procedures to assess incidents and defines processes for notification, investigation and communication between departments. It is designed to assist police services, OHS officers and the Ministry of Labour coordinate information, and help agencies work together to determine if an incident involves potential OHS violations, criminal activity or both. Plans are also in place for joint training initiatives.
Ten police services across the Province have signed on to the Memorandum of Understanding, including the RCMP K Division, Calgary Police Service and Edmonton Police Service.
Labour Minister Christina Gray stated the following regarding the Memorandum of Understanding:
“All workers have the right to safe and healthy workplaces, from the very first shift right through to retirement. Criminal charges are another enforcement tool to help ensure compliance with workplace health and safety laws. The agreement will help OHS and police to better serve and protect Albertans to help ensure every worker comes home safe at the end of the day.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau similarly made a statement on the National Day of Mourning, reiterating the federal government’s commitment to “working to ensure the Westray law is applied effectively, and negligent employers are held responsible.” The statement promised training for labour inspectors and police, and the sharing of investigative best practices across jurisdictions.
Despite the increased legislative and policy focus on workplace safety in the years since the Westray Mine disaster, 144 people lost their lives last year on work sites in Alberta. Albertans can likely expect to see more coordinated and timely workplace investigations, and the potential for an increase in criminal charges being laid.