April 28 is the Workers’ Day of Mourning, a day of remembrance for people injured, killed, or made ill on the job. A unique video series produced by the Injured Workers’ History Project takes a detailed look at the history of workplace accidents and legislation in Ontario.
We’d like to thank the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups (ONIWG) for permission to post the video. We hope that this story is shared as much as possible, as the struggle to get fair compensation for injured workers is far from over.
The Project was co-chaired by Robert Storey (Associate Professor, School of Labour Studies, McMaster University) and injured worker Sabrina Pacini. You can learn more about the Injured Workers’ History Project here.
Watch “Their Only Power Was Moral: A History of Injured Workers in Ontario”
Important Facts from the Video Series
The following is a series of highlights and key facts from the series, but is not a full transcript.
The Movement Begins
By the 1880s, the industrial revolution was in full swing in Canada. Steam-powered machinery in factories were operated by children and adults alike. Sweatshop conditions prevailed, shifts were typically 10 – 12 hours long, and accidents were common. Construction and agriculture also had dangerous conditions and frequent accidents.
On October 9, 1884, five workers died in an explosion at the Hamilton Powder Company facility in Cumminsville. None of the families were compensated, in spite of employer fault being determined by an inquest.
The Factory Act of 1885 attempted to provide some minimal provisions, and the subsequent Workman’s Compensation for Injuries Act of 1886 grew out of an increasing number of railway accidents. Unfortunately, while it compensated passengers, workers were left out.
By the early 1900s, accident rates had increased 300%, and injuries were becoming so common that the usual “careless worker” excuse became less and less plausible all the time. More and more workers were winning their cases in the courts. Unions, who had been arguing for better conditions since the 1870s, were being taken seriously at last.
A Royal Commission conducted on the situation, started in 1910 by Sir William Meredith, took years to review the issues. But in 1915, the Workman’s Compensation Act was finally passed into law, and recognized in some ways the need for justice, much to the chagrin of business interests of the day. It did, however, enshrine “Meredith’s Principles” as the foundation on which compensation was based:
- Compensation as long as the disability lasts
- Collective liability
- Employer pays
- No fault
- Independent agency
Unfortunately, however, injured workers lost the right to sue employers. Another big shortcoming of the new Act was that agriculture, domestic, and retail, and other sectors where women were heavily represented were left out.
The Numbers Come In – and Workers Organize
The Workman’s Compensation Annual Report for 1930 documented over 723,000 workplace accident claims from 1915 to 1930. Over 5,000 of the accidents were fatal. Almost 40,000 involved some form of permanent disability.
Ongoing complaints about coverage and waiting periods prompted an inquiry, but hard economic times in the 1930s meant there would be no improvement. In response, workers formed their own group: the Brotherhood of Injured Workers.
In the late 1940s, worker dissatisfaction with compensation let to the third inquiry in as many decades. Justice Wilfrid D. Roach’s commission heard demands for the extension of coverage to all workers, eliminating the waiting periods, and establishing a minimum level of compensation. While Roach recommended against all of these steps, he did extend coverage for industrial-related diseases to workers nearing retirement age.
After World War II
According to Workman’s Compensation Board statistics in the 1950s, injuries to back and spine, hands and fingers, and feet and toes took up ⅔ of compensation costs. Leading causes of accidents included: struck by objects (27.9%), overexertion (16.1%), striking against object (15.9%), and falls and slips (11.3% same level and 9.9% different levels).
Better administrative processes, use of new technology, and better facilities in the 1950s were undertaken to improve service delivery.
The Hog’s Hollow Disaster
The birthplace of the modern injured worker’s movement was at the Hog’s Hollow disaster in Toronto. On March 17, 1960, five workers were killed while constructing a tunnel for a water main. All were recent immigrants from Italy.
The Coroner’s Jury found that, “According to the evidence presented almost all the safety regulations governing this tunnel project were violated at one time or another…The attitude of the management toward the safety of the individual worker can be described as no less than callous.”
Local wisdom agreed. In the Toronto Italian community in the 1960s there was a saying, that “when they came to Canada they expected to find the streets paved with gold, only to find that the streets were not only not paved at all, but that they were expected to pave them.”
Workers never knew if they were going to be able to go home to their families at night.
Accidents and fatalities rose throughout the 1960s. According to Workman’s Compensation Board compensation and claim statististics, in 1966 there were over 320,000 claims. There was a steep rise in permanent impairments, with corresponding rise in costs.
While some employers argued that this rise was due to “careless or shirking workers”, Lawrence Ingalls, lawyer for the United Steelworkers, said the rise was in part due to the fact that workers were now able to go to any doctor, not just company doctors on corporate payrolls, like at Inco. Another part was due to union campaigns to report all accidents.
Sadly, Workers’ Compensation benefits have never come close to the regular paycheck earned by workers.
Colonel Legg, chairman of the compensation board in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, who was famous for being hostile and discriminatory to anyone from a non-northern European background. This led to the formation of the Union of Injured Workers in the early 1973. In 1974 about 900 injured workers voted to form the union.
“An Injury to One is an Injury to All”
“An Injury to One is an Injury to All”, the summary of the report of the Ontario Task Force on the vocational rehabilitation services provided at the Workers’ Compensation Board at Downsview, found that it wasn’t working. The facility was closed.
Rick Sebarra, the Minister of Labour in the Liberal government at the time proposed amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act called Bill 162. While it allegedly would provide fair compensation, it contained cutbacks to rehabilitation funds, and replaced lifetime pensions with separate payments for non-economic loss (NEL) for pain and suffering and future economic loss (FEL).
There was also a troubling issue that came to be known as “deeming”. Workers’ Compensation Board officials would have the power to “deem” workers able to work at certain jobs at a certain level, whether these jobs existed or not.
In October 1988, frustrated injured workers protested against Bill 162 at Queen’s Park, and only left when Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae convinced them he would look into it. An official letter from Rae confirmed that “an NDP government would move swiftly to remove deeming.” This was not a promise that was kept when he was elected in 1990.
At a conference in 1990, the Ontario Network of Injured Workers was formed by activists. The group was dedicated to taking up the cause of individual injured workers and fight for justice.
The NDP government then introduced Bill 165 did include an additional $200/month to older injured workers, but used the “Friedland Formula” that ended the full indexing of the pension. In spite of hearings, the bill was passed into law.
A Royal Commission into injured workers was cut short by the Mike Harris Conservative government. Their Bill 99 brought extreme cuts to the program in 1999, including early and usafe returns to work, experience ratings, and with the funneling of injured workers into low-paid and often unsuitable jobs. A 24-7 snitch line and secret videotaping was set up to report workers if they left their homes to get groceries or cut their lawns.
While worker fraud wasn’t found to be a significant issue by these measures, employer fraud was. Linda Lamoureux, Director of the Special Investigations Branch of the WSIB, found widespread fraud and abuse on the part of employers across the province.
The Struggle Continues
Over time, the makeup of injured workers had changed from predominantly construction workers to workers of colour from all sectors of the economy.
Today, workers have to fight for recognition of injuries, even when medical evidence is on their side. They have learned that being patient just doesn’t work. It’s all about standing up and fighting for benefits, and getting support from other injured workers.