Carbonear hosts Day of Mourning ceremony

Labour council calls for criminal charges for workplace deaths

Melissa Jenkins
Published on April 29, 2014
Melissa O'Keefe (right) lost her brother Sean  to an industrial accident in 2005. Her son Ethan (front) and aunt Sonia Williams laid a wreath in his memory at the national Day of Mourning in Carbonear April 28.
Photo by Melissa Jenkins

April 28 was more than a Monday for people across Canada, including many in the Trinity-Conception region.

That date marked the national Day of Mourning to remember those who have lost their lives, been injured or became ill from an occupational health hazard.

Whether it is a death on a construction site or a respiratory illness from poor air quality, the day is a time to remember those affected by those hazards.

At 4 p.m. the Town of Carbonear hosted a ceremony for those of the Trinity Conception region.

Some 50 family members and friends of those who passed away from these incidents gathered in the council chamber at the Conception Bay Regional Community Centre.

There were attendees from Harbour Main to New Harbour, and many other towns across the region.

Local and provincial politicians were also on hand to lay wreaths on behalf of those affected, including municipal leaders Frank Butt from Carbonear, Sonia Williams from Harbour Grace, Edna Lambert from Salmon Cove and Betty Moore of Clarke’s Beach. Carbonear-Harbour Grace MHA Sam Slade was also there, along with NDP leader Lorraine Michael and St. John’s centre MHA Gerry Rogers.

It was a ceremony of reflection, but also of awareness.

Guest speaker Barbara Byers is the executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress. She spoke from the heart, noting there is an ongoing battle for workplaces to take responsibility for injuries and deaths that take place due to negligence.

She says there is a movement across Canada that hopes more than a fine is imposed on businesses not following legal protocols and neglecting occupational health and safety standards.

A family remembers

Melissa O’Keefe, a resident of Carbonear, lost her brother to an occupational incident in 2005.

Sean O’Keefe was killed in Nisku while he was working on a weekend with several others to prepare the job site for the following Monday. A piece of steel that was not properly secured that weighed some 700 kilograms fell off a forklift, hitting Sean in the head, then falling on top of him. He died instantly.

“Safety-wise, when you move anything like that, it has to be secured with chains,” sister Melissa told The Compass. “But this person who brought it in (to the shop) decided not to do so.”

Sean died during Occupational Health and Safety Week.

Melissa said it took quite a bit of time before those on the jobsite called for help. After the incident, the company was fined $275,000 for failing to ensure employee safety.

No charges were ever laid.

Melissa’s son Ethan, who is seven, never got to meet his uncle.

“Ethan is always asking questions about Sean and what happened and who he was,” she explained.

Ethan, Melissa and Sean’s aunt, Harbour Grace Deputy Mayor Sonia Williams, laid a bundle of flowers in his honour during the wreath laying ceremony Monday afternoon.

“(Ethan) was really proud (during the ceremony),” Melissa said. “He was even practicing how to place the wreath.”

Time for a change

Those at the ceremony nodded in agreement as Debbie McCarthy, president of the Baccalieu Trail district labour council, spoke to the crowd.

“I know many of you here today have had to deal with the loss of a loved one, friend or colleague,” she said. “We mourn with you, and we want you to know we will not let those lost lives be in vain.”

Last year, some 1,000 workers across Canada lost their lives in workplace incidents.

In Newfoundland, 30 lives were lost last year from deaths in the workplace: five from workplace fatalities and 25 from occupational disease. There were 26 in 2012.

McCarthy wants to see the criminal code upheld in these incidents.

“Despite the passage of the Westray Act — federal changes to the criminal code in 2004 that allow criminal charges against corporations for negligence causing death — there have been few prosecutions,” she said. “That has to change.”

Melissa said she has heard not much has changed at her brother’s former place of employment since 2005, which she believes is unacceptable.

McCarthy called on government to hold corporations accountable for deaths on their worksites to put an end to “needless tragedies.”

“A safe and healthy workplace is not a sweet deal,” she concluded. “It is a right for every worker.”