Why don’t employers go to jail when their workers die on the job? – CBC.ca

On average, 26 people in Newfoundland and Labrador die each year from occupational accidents and diseases, according to the province’s labour federation — something the group thinks could be prevented by harsher penalties.

construction worker death

On average, 26 people in Newfoundland and Labrador die each year from occupational accidents and diseases, according to the province’s labour federation — something the group thinks could be prevented by harsher penalties. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Labour representatives in Newfoundland and Labrador are pushing to send employers to jail if they’re found guilty of killing the people they hire in unsafe workplaces.

The current regime, says Mary Shortall, president of the N.L. Federation of Labour, simply slaps an offending company with a fine — one that often barely amounts to a single full-time salary.

“This is no guarantee that it’s not going to happen again,” Shortall said in a phone interview Tuesday. “This is the employer getting away with it.”

The labour federation’s comments come a week after two construction companies, Lancor Concrete Contractors and Magna Contracting and Management, pleaded guilty to several occupational health and safety charges for failing to meet workplace safety standards.

That failure ultimately killed Christopher Fifield, 26, sending him plummeting nearly 100 feet to his death three years ago from a St. John’s hotel under construction.

Lancor was ordered to pay a $60,000 fine for its role in the accident, as well as a 30 per cent victim surcharge and a $20,000 donation to a charity.

Magna walked away paying $15,000, plus a victim surcharge.

chris fifield worker

Chris Fifield, 26, was killed in 2018 after falling about 30 metres from a building that was under construction in downtown St. John’s. (GoFundMe)

“What should happen,” Shortall argued, “and what’s the best deterrent of all to happen, is for them to be fined way bigger than that, or to spend time in jail.”

Those penalties are in the normal range for companies convicted of providing unsafe workplaces that lead to employee fatalities — something Shortall says police and the courts have the legislative power to change.

“It’s an issue across Canada,” she said, noting that in only a handful of cases companies have been charged with criminal negligence. Low awareness of a 2004 amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada, she added, is likely to blame.

Before that amendment, businesses could only be charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act — the penalties for which only include fines, not time behind bars.

On average, 26 people die of occupational diseases and accidents every year in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the labour federation. 

But Shortall said criminal charges, to her knowledge, have never been laid against an employer in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We have enough people who die on the job here that … we should be seeing more action on this,” she said.

Jeffrey Summers, the Crown attorney in the Fifield case, said it’s up to police to investigate a workplace accident and lay criminal charges if there’s enough evidence to do so. But, he added, the burden of proof in a criminal case is much higher.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary confirmed it investigates all sudden deaths in its jurisdiction, including Fifield’s.

But a spokesperson told CBC News that a criminal negligence charge — defined as showing “wanton and reckless disregard” for another person’s life — requires significantly more evidence than a charge under health and safety regulations, and as such, it’s more difficult to obtain reasonable and probable grounds for an arrest.

Shortall, meanwhile, says labour supporters should continue pushing for stricter penalties and ensuring police forces are trained to investigate workplace accidents through the lens of negligence.

“No employer sets out to have a fatality in their workplace. But when you’re making decisions, or taking shortcuts, or you’re being negligent, there’s no deterrent, really,” she said.

“I think if it was pubic knowledge, and very well understood, that if you kill a worker you go to jail … that’s a really good deterrent. In fact, it would actually save lives in the long run.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador