When Henok Amare’s brother Dawit died in a workplace incident back in June, Amare kept expecting to see something about his brother pop up in the news — but as the days dragged into weeks, he realized nothing was coming.
While making arrangements to have his brother’s remains sent back to Ethiopia where his family is from, the thought of people in Toronto not knowing that Dawit had died on the job, or about the ongoing investigation into the cause, started to gnaw at the back of his mind.
That’s why, Amare said, he thinks investigating government bodies (in his brother’s case, the federal Labour Program) should proactively share news of workplace fatality investigations, rather than solely responding to media requests about them.
“When the community and society and everybody is notified, it will make people think about the tragedy,” he told CBC News in an interview.
“I think it’s important that the community is notified, the companies are identified, so that people make informed decisions whether to apply there, to know that the workplace is safe.”
Dawit Amare, 52, had been a warehouse worker at transportation company Canpar Express in Etobicoke in western Toronto for more than 20 years when he died at work on June 24, his brother said. Canpar did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
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In an email, federal government spokesperson Marie Terrien confirmed the death, and said the Labour Program is investigating. The incident falls under federal jurisdiction as opposed to provincial, as Canpar is a road transportation company that runs across provincial boundaries.
While the Labour Program collects preliminary information and conducts an investigation, the Canada Labour Code doesn’t allow for any information to be disclosed, she said.
“The Labour Program cannot publicly share any information related to fatalities in federally regulated workplaces, which includes notifying the public,” Terrien said.
Hopes for prevention
Amare said he understands the need to not share personal information, but stating that a death occurred and notifying people of where it happened seems reasonable in his eyes.
That opinion is shared by Shirley Hickman, executive director of Threads of Life, an association for workplace tragedy family support. She said timely, proactive public notices of workplace deaths would help Canadians understand just how prevalent the issue is.
“If there’s a way to provide greater transparency and timely information about fatalities, it’s certainly possible that we can create a better understanding of the scope and the scale of these tragedies that are happening every day across our country,” Hickman said.
“Through awareness, there’s an opportunity for prevention.”
In a statement, a federal government spokesperson said there are “currently no legislative proposals” that would allow for the release of this kind of information, but it “could be considered at a future date” when impacts to the parties involved in a death and the investigative process are taken into account.
Similar guidelines exist in Ontario, according to a provincial Ministry of Labour spokesperson. Responding agencies including the ministry and police notify next of kin in the event of a worker’s death. But the ministry doesn’t issue news releases for new investigations — though it does provide information to media when requested.
“However, in a case where the ministry lays charges and a fine is issued by the courts, the ministry typically publishes a public bulletin on our website (usually when penalties are above $50,000),” spokesperson Anu Dhar said in an email.
Dedication to helping others
Statistics from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada show that in 2019, there were 925 workplace-related deaths across the country, when accounting for injury and disease linked to a person’s occupation.
According to the latest federal report, there were 49 workplace deaths reported under federal jurisdiction in 2020, with five provinces — Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan — accounting for almost 86 per cent of that figure.
In Ontario last year under provincial jurisdiction, there were 58 workplace fatalities, according to the Ministry of Labour.
Hickman said most Canadians likely don’t know that on average, three people are killed on the job each day, or die due to a disease related to their job.
“We read about car crashes and we read about drug overdoses and we read about murder, but we don’t really have an understanding in Canada that many workers are dying every day,” she said.
For Amare, his brother’s death comes with a twinge of sad irony; Dawit was a member of the health and safety committee at his workplace, and helped establish a first aid room at the facility.
“His time was dedicated to helping others,” he said.
“He always advocated for a safe place, a safer workplace — but ironically, the tragedy happened to him.”