Cross Country Checkup·CHECKUP

After losing his arm in a workplace injury, this man helps others navigate the compensation system

Steve Mantis says he was treated well because of the severity of his injury, but others who were hurt on the job were treated unfairly
About 20 people met outside Windsor's Worker Safety Insurance Board office to protest the agency's handling of workplace injury claims.

"I got about two or three inches left on my left arm," Steve Mantis tells Checkup host Duncan McCue.

Mantis lost his arm in a workplace injury in 1978. In the process that followed, he says he was treated well because of the severity of his injury, but others who were hurt on the job were treated with suspicion.

During our discussion on workplace safety, Mantis from Kaministiquia, Ont., called to share his experience with the workers' compensation system and his work to help others through it. 

Duncan McCue: So I understand that you suffered an injury on the job?

Steve Mantis: I did. Back in 1978, I was just a young guy, 28 years old, and working residential construction. My hand got caught in a winch and it wound around and it pulled right off. I got about two or three inches left on my left arm and of course, I was at work and ended up going into the workers' compensation system. Interesting, as an amputee I was treated like the best. I'm in the one per cent of what they consider the most serious injuries. But what I saw happen to so many other workers was that they were not treated well and actually were under suspicion for scamming the system.

DM: When you say they weren't treated well and under suspicion, what do you mean?

SM: Some people were surveilled. My first real encounter with this system was a couple of months after I lost my arm. I was sent to the hospital that was owned by the Workers Compensation Board of Ontario and I heard stories after stories. I saw people getting so frustrated by not being believed or being under suspicion that they left and lost all their benefits over the years.

In 1984, we started a self-help group here in Thunder Bay for injured workers because there were no people around that knew how the system worked or how, you know, to help people unload when they were going through a hard time. And I'm now the chair of our provincial organization, our research action committee. We've been partnering for 20 years with researchers to really try to understand how this system works and maybe how we can improve it.

DM: How did that self-help group group work, Steve?

SM: We had three goals. Number one was to provide information and support to injured workers and their families. And of course, that put me in touch with lots of injured workers who are going through the system who didn't know [how to navigate it]. And I got to hear what their actual experiences were. The second was to try to make systemic changes because what we saw was there were so many people coming to us for help here in Thunder Bay that we said, "There's something wrong with the system if all these people are looking for help. If we can change the system a little bit maybe we can then reduce the numbers of people coming to us for help."

DM: If there's one change that you would like to see happen today, what would it be?

SM: It's how the system is funded. This is our oldest social safety net in Canada. Workers' compensation was started over 100 years ago and the founding principle said it should be a collective liability — that an individual employer shouldn't be held responsible for all their individual costs because our economy is all interconnected. We're all benefiting from the economy and we all need to share that. But in the '80s, they brought in a program called experience rating that would provide a financial incentive supposedly to help increase health and safety prevention activities on the worksite. But in fact, it's had an adverse effect in many cases so that some employers now are managing claims and encouraging people not to report injuries instead of actually doing prevention.

DM: You said you lost your left arm. How did it end up impacting your life?

SM: It meant that I've learned about how to live with a disability. I'm now 67 and I've been employed through most of that time in rehabilitation and advocacy and research and have learned a tremendous amount about the workers' compensation system and health and safety and know that we can design the system better than it is now. If we go back to some of those founding principles of collective liability and get rid of this experience rating program, I think we'll see more emphasis in terms of prevention in the workplace, rather than managing claims. 

All comments have been edited and condensed for clarity. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh.