Nfld. & Labrador

Labrador West work environment 'definitely contributed' to suicides, says union boss

The union representing employees at the Iron Ore Company of Canada says a stressful work environment has "definitely contributed" to a spike in suicides in Labrador West, while the mayor of Wabush says the numbers may be higher than reported.

Wabush mayor suggests 5 suicides in 8 months may be a conservative number

'The stress levels on site itself was extremely high and it definitely contributed to it,' says Ron Thomas, a union local president with the United Steelworkers that represents workers at the Iron Ore Company of Canada mine in Labrador City. (CBC)

The union representing employees at the Iron Ore Company of Canada says a stressful work environment has "definitely contributed" to a spike in suicides in Labrador West, while the mayor of Wabush says the numbers may be higher than reported.

Health officials confirmed Thursday that five people in the neighbouring towns of Labrador City and Wabush have taken their own lives in the past eight months.

Four of the five were connected in some way to the IOC iron ore mine, says Ron Thomas, president of the United Steelworkers union local.

"The stress levels on site itself was extremely high and it definitely contributed to it," Thomas told CBC News Friday.

Could be more

Wabush Mayor Colin Vardy said there have been "numerous" suicide attempts in the region, and he believes the number might be higher than what health officials are reporting.

Colin Vardy, mayor of the Town of Wabush, said there have been 'numerous" suicide attempts in the region, and believes the number might be higher than what's being reported. (CBC)

When asked if he believes some unexplained deaths may have been suicides, Vardy said: "absolutely."

Additional counselling services have been deployed to the remote mining communities, where some have suggested a there's a mental health crisis.

Vardy has researched the issue and said a region with a population equivalent to that of Labrador West should record one or fewer suicides a year.

"We're five or six times higher than the national average," Vardy said.

Economic uncertainty

All this is playing out amid a changing and uncertain economic landscape in Labrador West, where mining is the very reason for its existence.

[Our members have] been treated totally different than they have in the past, and our discipline records have been going up. It's absolutely crazy.- Ron Thomas, United Steelworkers union local

The mine in Wabush closed several years ago, eliminating hundreds of well-paying jobs, and the IOC operation has been under pressure to cut costs and increase production in order to stave off a similar fate.

Thomas said it's been a stressful period for workers, and he largely blames owner Rio Tinto.

"[Our members have] been treated totally different than they have in the past, and our discipline records have been going up. It's absolutely crazy," Thomas said.

He said there are thousands of outstanding grievances before an arbitrator, workers are being forced to work overtime because dozens of people have quit and not been replaced, and services for those with mental health concerns have been cut in recent years.

Thomas added that a recent decision by the company to implement a shift system of seven days on and seven days off shift has also contributed to stress.

"It's extremely frustrating. I knew every single one of them quite well," Thomas said of those who took their own lives.

IOC released a statement Friday saying it is taking the situation very seriously.

"Taking care of our employees is our priority. However, we will not commenting," the statement said.

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.