One of this country's largest unions is commemorating a milestone in worker safety.

Forty years ago, on April 18, several hundred miners in Elliot Lake, Ont., held an illegal wildcat strike over unsafe working conditions. The strike became the catalyst for stronger health and safety laws in the province — and across the country.

“We just decided we couldn't do it anymore. We had people who were sick and dying of cancer and silicosis,” said Brad Beemer, as he stood beside a fire burning in barrel at the entrance to the old Denison uranium mines in Elliot Lake.

Beemer took part in a mock picket line put on by the United Steelworkers union on Wednesday.

But in 1974, it was real.

The miners only returned to work on the promise that the Ontario government would do something — and that led to health and safety legislation.

Fight getting ‘harder’

It was a milestone but the Steelworkers union says there are still problems.

Earlier this month, another mining industry worker was killed in a Sudbury nickel smelter. The union says about 1,000 people die every year on the job in Canada.

It wants company officials to be held criminally responsible.

The Steelworkers’ Sylvia Boyce said laws that are already on the books for workplace fatalities are not being used.

“If there is no warrant for charges, fine, that's all we want,” she said. “Why should workers be treated any differently than anyone else [who] is killed?”

Beemer worked in the Elliot Lake mines until they closed in the 1990s. He said he sees different challenges for the next generation.

“There's still a fight there, and it's harder to do that fight, with downsizing … moving jobs oversees and stuff like that,” he said.

miners memorial elliot lake

On Wednesday, the Steelworkers union held a ceremony to remember the 267 names on the miners memorial in Elliot Lake. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

In addition to taking part in the mock picket line Wednesday, Beamer and about 70 other health and safety advocates went to the Miners Memorial site in Elliot Lake. It was there they remembered some of the more than 260 Elliot Lake miners who died underground — or years later from occupational diseases.

Long latency period for workplace disease

Former uranium miners are still coming forward with health conditions related to their time underground.

“Month by month, people [still] come in who believe their health condition is linked to their work in the mines, all these years later,” said Alec Farquar, director of the provincial office of the worker adviser, who helps some of the Elliot Lake workers with compensation claims.

“The last mine closed almost 20 years ago, but the latency period for occupational disease is very long.”

Farquar said the wildcat strike in Elliot Lake led to research on occupational disease that has had a national impact.

Too many people are still killed at work, said Wayne Glibbery, who’s with the Workers Health and Safety centre in Sudbury, Ont.

mock picket line

Wayne Glibbery, right, says too many people are still killed at work. Glibbery worked as a miner in Elliot Lake, and now he's with the Workers Health and Safety centre in Sudbury. He took part in a mock picket at the entrance to the old Denison Uranium mine to remember the 1974 wildcat strike in Elliot Lake. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

“People should rally around health and safety, because it's something that affects people's lives. [If there’s] no health and safety, people die.”

Glibbery worked as a miner in Elliot Lake and supports the Steelworkers 'Stop The Killing' campaign to see the so-called Westray provisions enforced.

Following a deadly coal mine explosion in Nova Scotia, the criminal code was changed so managers and top company officials could be held responsible for not protecting workers.

But, Glibbery noted, it’s now been “20 years since the Westray disaster and there hasn't been anybody thrown in jail as a result of their responsibility in the workplace.”