In the early 1970s, a young reporter at the Globe and Mail named Gerald Seniuk published a series publicly disclosing, for the first time, the appalling mortality rates from industrial disease among uranium miners in Elliot Lake.
His revelations scandalized the nation and triggered a series of impromptu — and highly illegal — wildcat walkouts by those miners, which focused still further national attention on the Elliot Lake uranium mines.
At first, as these things so often do, it seemed a lost, desperate and hopeless cause: a ragtag band of hard rock brothers on a hastily improvised, makeshift picket line arrayed against the powerful interests of Ontario’s mining industry and two of its wealthiest companies, Rio Algom and Denison Mines Ltd.
But then, under considerable pressure from the likes of Sudbury East NDP MPP Elie Martel and in the glare of national media scrutiny, someone in the Progressive Conservative government of Premier William Davis got the message, and the Ham Commission into Workplace Safety in the Ontario Mining Industry was appointed.
Chaired by University of Toronto Engineering Professor James Ham, the commission held hearings in mining communities across Northern Ontario.
The good professor learned what many northerners already knew: the rate of human carnage from workplace accidents in our mines was a national disgrace.
At Inco alone, for example, there were 5,000 lost time injuries in 1975 in a workforce of 14,000. Your chances of being maimed at work, in other words, were roughly one in three.
If you worked for three years, your chances were … you get the picture. The rate of fatal accidents and industrial disease was nothing to write home about, either.
Ham was appalled, and he implored the Davis government to act.
And it did — instituting yet another round of roving hearings into how provincial workplace health and safety laws might be strengthened to reduce this unseemly industrial carnage.
The United Steelworkers mobilized the troops and briefs were presented at each hearing, urging the government to adopt stringent new workplace safety measures, including the right for Ontario workers to refuse unsafe work.
Howls of outrage were immediately heard from Ontario employers, led by the mining industry: workers could not be trusted with the right to refuse unsafe work. They would invoke this right capriciously and frivolously. The wheels of Ontario industry would surely grind to a halt.
To its everlasting credit, the Davis government adopted the Ontario Safety and Health Act of 1978, which included the right to refuse unsafe work and even mandated the establishment of joint health and safety committees in most Ontario workplaces.
Such committees had originated in Sudbury at Inco, the product of tough union negotiators at the bargaining table.
As history has now shown, workplace work refusals remain an extreme rarity. They are rightly seen by workers as an act of last resort. The wheels of Ontario industry did not grind to a halt, as even a casual glance at most balance sheets will attest.
But, sadly, workplace fatalities in Ontario’s mines continued, and I continued to cover them for the Globe, throughout the 1970s and most of the 80s. In the one year that no one died underground here at Inco, I swear to God, I actually sold the Globe a story about that. You could look it up.
But most years, the deaths continued apace. And so did the Royal Commissions and Inquiries into Mine Safety.
There was the Stevenson Commission, which enhanced and standardized Mine Rescue. And the Burkett Commission, which reaffirmed the importance of the joint management-union approach to workplace safety, beginning at the corporate CEO level, they stressed.
And do you know what? All of this made a difference. It really did. Mining fatalities, once a monthly occurrence here not that long ago, are now extremely rare.
Times underground, of course, have changed immensely, too. Thanks to automation there are far fewer miners to kill. But it was 30 years ago this past summer — 1982 — that the last provincial commissioner into mine safety, Kevin Burkett, handed down his findings.
A lot of ore has rumbled down the ore passes since then. And yet the fatalities continue. My heart goes out — and my heartfelt best wishes for the success of their cause — to the families of Jordan Fram and Jason Chenier, who perished together in a run of muck at Vale’s Stobie Mine on June 8, 2011.
They are campaigning, so far in vain, to shame the McGuinty government to call an inquiry into mine safety in the province. But the government has proven shameless.
It offers only the feeble excuse that such an inquiry might somehow interfere with the pending inquests into the fatalities. But this response does not, surely, feed the bulldog.
Coroner’s inquests into all Ontario mining fatals are a matter of long-standing precedent, and will surely be held in any event.
And where, one wonders, is Sudbury’s own representative in the McGuinty cabinet? Sudbury Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci has remained uncharacteristically silent on this issue.
Premier McGuinty? Minister Bartolucci? Man up, gentlemen. There is no downside to this action. These exercises have, after all, worked out rather well in the past. You could look it up.
Mick Lowe covered hard rock mining for the Globe and Mail from 1973 to 1988. He is a former editor and columnist for Northern Life.