Death on the job: Fatal N.L. workplace accident convictions result in fines, but no jail time
Median fine of $70K imposed in such recent occupational health and safety cases
When a worker dies on the job in Newfoundland and Labrador and their employer is convicted of occupational health and safety violations in connection with their death, the punishment is in their pocketbook, not jail.
CBC News has examined hundreds of fatal workplace accidents across the country, to see how penalties vary from province to province — and ask what, if anything, should change.
Alex Tuff knows about the devastating impact of a fatal workplace accident.
"It never, never ends," Tuff said.
"It's always on your mind. You wake up every morning. You want to call Kris. You want to call your family member. It's never over, you're always thinking about it."
Kristopher Tuff, Alex's brother, was killed in an explosion at his workplace in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2013.
Earlier this year, two companies and two individuals were convicted under the occupational health and safety act, in relation to his death, and fined a total of $108,000 plus a 15 per cent victim surcharge.
"I feel personally it was enough just because it does, like I say, compare to other cases," Alex Tuff said.
"But at the end of the day, no amount of money will bring him back."
Both companies declined comment when the fines were levied in March, and did not respond to a recent request from CBC News.
But they indicated during last spring's court proceedings that Tuff's death resulted in action. That included new staff, new safety procedures, and the hiring of health and safety consultants.
11 fatal accidents linked to recent convictions
Kristopher Tuff's case was one of 11 fatal workplace accidents in the province that resulted in convictions under occupational health and safety rules over the past half dozen years.
Those 11 cases all had one thing in common: no jail time for any of the employers involved.
The penalties, instead, were financial ones.
The maximum allowable fine in Newfoundland and Labrador is $250,000, plus the potential for additional fines of up to $25,000 per day.
The median fine in those recent fatal cases in the province came in at $70,000.
That's higher than the rest of Atlantic Canada, but lower than the rest of the country.
CBC News could only find five cases in all of Canada where an employer has gone to jail for an occupational health and safety-related offence in connection with a workplace fatality — all of them in only four provinces: Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
Low fines 'fairly common'
Barbara Neis, a Memorial University professor who has been doing health and safety research for decades, said she is not surprised by those numbers for Newfoundland and Labrador.
"Relatively low fines are sort of understood to be fairly common, given these kinds of infractions, once you're dealing with a workplace-related problem," Neis said.
"So $70,000 sounds pretty low, given that we're dealing with a fatality."
- Penalties when workers die on the job don't go far enough, say labour groups, families
- 'The ultimate human price': How workplace deaths haunt 7 Canadian families
- Ontario declares inquest amid campaign by U.K. band, British MPs and CBC investigation
Neis says it is largely up to employers and workers to maintain healthy and safe workplaces.
She says there has to be a "pretty shocking situation" before something ends up in court, noting that CBC's research focused on acute fatalities.
"The health and safety system has a bunch of different pieces to it," said Neis, who is co-director of the Safety Net Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research at MUN.
"I think, historically, it's largely been decriminalized, so activities that happen inside the workplace are seen as potentially running against regulations, but not necessarily criminal."
According to Neis, there is a "collective interest" in reducing the rate of serious workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses.
"The system is not working as well as it should," she said.
Punishment tough enough?
There is a debate across the country about whether the punishment is tough enough.
"We want to effect a societal change where dying for a living is not acceptable in Canada," said Stephen Hunt, the western Canadian director for the United Steelworkers.
We want to effect a societal change where dying for a living is not acceptable in Canada.- Stephen Hunt, United Steelworkers union
Hunt wants more charges brought under the Criminal Code, rather than simply relying on regulatory charges, through changes sparked by the Westray mine disaster in Nova Scotia a quarter-century ago.
Those provisions allow for the criminal prosecution of employers or organizations in cases of extreme negligence where an employee is seriously or fatally injured.
Hunt says such criminal prosecutions rarely happen, but more of them could help with deterrence.
"I don't want to see a bunch of bosses in jail," Hunt said.
"In fact, if we saw one or two, I think that would be the paradigm shift that we see in Canada that would really bring home the fact that bosses have a responsibility for their workers."
What we would like is an emphasis on education, as opposed to an emphasis on prosecution.- William Gardner, Manitoba Employers Council
But employers' groups believe it's better to focus on finding the causes of accidents, and eliminating them in the future.
"Most employers get it — they understand that safety is good for their business or for their operation," said William Gardner, chair of the Manitoba Employers Council.
"What we would like is an emphasis on education, as opposed to an emphasis on prosecution."
'Welcomes input from anyone'
While the debate is national, the responsibility for occupational health and safety falls to the provinces.
Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh declined CBC News requests for an interview about the current regulations, and whether they are working.
Instead, her department responded with an emailed statement, saying the province "is committed to maintaining a strong occupational health and safety culture in all workplaces ... and welcomes input from anyone who has suggestions on how to improve the legislation."
Service NL steered inquiries about how the courts apply the penalties set out in the legislation to the Department of Justice and Public Safety.
Officials there issued a statement noting that "the court takes into consideration numerous factors" in imposing a sentence for any offence.
"Often times, corporate entities are charged as a result of an OHS incident; when convicted, these corporations are subject to fines and other conditions as set out in the legislation."
'Everything should fall into place'
Alex Tuff, meanwhile, wants companies to focus on things they can do to make the workplace safer.
"We've got to get away from the whole, you pay the fine and it's over with," Tuff said.
"My message is, like I said, get the training, understand what you guys have to do as a company, and everything should fall into place after that."