We often talk about connections in safety. Events and conditions that are triggered by some inciting incident. 45 years ago around 1,000 miners from Elliot Lake, Ontario went on strike for three weeks to protest the lack of health and safety standards at the mines. Hundreds of their colleagues were ill or dying from silicosis or lung cancer, and many of the workers who had died were being refused workers compensation. They were mining uranium, and had concerns about the affects of radiation on their health, but were being told by the Ontario government it wasn’t harmful. The last straw for them was the revelation that the government had in fact already made a connection between radiation and lung cancer, yet had not changed anything in regards to mine safety.
For me, the story starts a lot earlier than 1974. It starts with my uncle, William Bolger, and his untimely death from lung cancer at the age of 33 in 1967. Lung cancer caused by radiation from the Rio Algom Uranium Mine in Elliot Lake where he had worked for 12 years, eventually becoming an underground Shift Boss Captain. The story starts with the fact that out of his 12-man crew, 11 died within a few years of each other from the same illness.
At the time of his death, my uncle was married with two young daughters. He was survived by both his parents, along with 10 siblings. My father, Dennis Bolger, was the second youngest and there was a 17-year difference between him and his oldest brother. In a lot of ways, Uncle Billy was a second father to my dad and the impact of his death is still there all these years later. My dad saw him as one of his idols.
All my life I’ve heard stories about my uncle. He was a larger than life figure, and whenever our large family gathers in one place there are bound to be stories about Uncle Billy being told. He made a lasting impact on his brothers and sisters.
My dad ended up following his older brother into the mining industry, going to the Haileybury School of Mines and then the Michigan Technological University to become a mining engineer. But, there was one thing he refused to do. “I promised my mom when I was going to mining school that I wouldn’t work underground. She had a phobia that anyone working underground would die,” he told me.
“We lived in Northern Ontario and mining was a very prosperous industry to get into. There were silver mines in Cobalt, iron ore mines in Temagami, nickel in Sudbury, gold mining in Timmins, and uranium in Elliot Lake. If you wanted to make good money that’s where you went. And I thought if I was going to go into the mining industry I wanted to be an engineer. But, underground mining accidents happened frequently; cave ins, rock falls, blasting incidents, and lack of adequate ventilation in the mine shafts were all issues.”
Years before the 1974 wildcat strike, they weren’t sure what had caused my uncle’s lung cancer. According to my dad, “at that time a lot of us heard lung cancer and never thought anything about radiation. Your mind went to smoking. And he didn’t smoke. The union thought the issue was silica dust. Even then it took them over 5 years before they finally accepted his death as a WCB claim.”
There was an expectancy in that time that a lot of people died on the job, especially if you were a miner.
The 1974 strike changed that. It’s been called a strike that saved lives. The news reached the public, and the government took notice. Health and safety in the mining industry was suddenly in focus. They launched a royal commission by James Ham, an engineering professor. A year later the Ham Commission listed out 117 recommendations to improve health and safety. Recommendations like preparing Codes of Practice, sampling the environment, and ensuring the competency of supervisors. These recommendations laid the foundation for the 1979 Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.
My dad had been working in the mining profession since 1968. When the Ham Commission was released, he was provided with a copy, and he still carries it with him today. “This Commission was important at the time to understand the historical significance behind the legislation,” he told me.
Following the Ham Commission, in 1980, the Burkett Commission reported on whether existing practices were adequate. It also laid out a series of additional recommendations to improve mine safety, including critical involvement of both management and unions. Worker involvement, joint health and safety committees, internal responsibility systems, and holding people accountable for those responsibilities were among the focus in the report.
What was my dad’s take on it? “There was a problem that existed, and that was getting everyone to understand that they all had ownership of these safety programs. Back then there wasn’t an emphasis on management systems or programs around behavior. They just wanted to stop the deaths. Through these two commissions they unpeeled this problem and realized they needed to focus on the people. I’d like to think we’ve gone a lot further. But, there are still people out there that don’t understand this. If we were really serious about health and safety we’d be integrating it into our school curriculum. We’re still too far behind. We’re talking about changing culture, but we don’t have a clear understanding of what that is.”
It’s a good point. Over the years there has been an increased focus on health and safety legislation, but there is still a lot of work to be done. A clear lack of structure around the qualifications of safety professionals is also part of what needs to change.
When I asked my dad what his underlying concern was, he simply said, “why is it taking so long for us to understand the value of a human life?”
Later this month is the National Day of Mourning, a day recognized across the country to remember those who have lost their lives, or suffered injury or illness on the job or due to a work-related tragedy. In 2017 the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) recorded 951 workplace fatalities. With each tragedy there is a ripple effect on families, friends and coworkers.
Over 50 years have passed since my uncle died. Going back to the idea of connections in safety, in a lot of ways I owe my career to him. My dad entered the mining industry because of his brother, and from there he moved into the safety field. I followed in his footsteps many years later. Watching how passionate my dad was about safety, hearing him talk about how critical loss prevention is, and having a clear idea of the consequences of loss made me want to be involved in this profession. We’re both Canadian Registered Safety Professionals, and I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and being mentored by him for the past 17 years.
It all goes back to that one inciting incident. A death that shouldn’t have happened. A death that was entirely preventable. My hope is that one day, through the work that we do, through the collaborative contributions of management, workers, safety professionals, government, and the general public, we can rest. Until then, I’ll continue to work in this profession, ally with other safety professionals, and dedicate my career to loss prevention. And I’ll remember my Uncle Billy, a man I never got to meet, but who lives on in stories and memories. A man whose death helped shape the future of health and safety in the mining industry and across this country.
Shannon Bolger is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional and is the President and Owner of Benchmark Safety Inc., a Safety Management consulting firm that provides development, implementation and monitoring support to companies across Canada, in the United States and Internationally. Shannon is also the current Secretary of the Women in Occupational Health & Safety Society.
Dennis Bolger is a Professional Engineer and Canadian Registered Safety Professional with over 40 years of domestic and international experience in Engineering, Operations and Safety Management. Over 30 years direct experience in the health and safety management area. Dennis was not only the first male Associate Member of WOHSS, he is also one of our founding sponsors.