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'They threaten them from reporting': Employers pressure workers to drop workplace injury claims, lawyer says

Each year, hundreds of Canadians are injured due to the dangers of their work. Ontario lawyer Maryth Yachnin works with some of the most vulnerable - temporary workers, precarious workers and migrant workers.
Maryth Yachnin is a staff lawyer at the Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario, a not-for-profit community legal clinic that provides free legal services to injured workers. (Patrick Brochu/CBC)

Each year, hundreds of Canadians are injured due to the dangers of their work. Ontario lawyer Maryth Yachnin works with some of those most vulnerable - temporary workers, precarious workers and migrant workers. 

Yachnin is a staff lawyer at the Industrial Accident Victims' Group of Ontario, a not-for-profit community legal clinic that provides free legal services to injured workers in need. 

As part of this week's discussion on workplace safety, Checkup host Duncan McCue spoke to Yachnin about what happens when an already vulnerable worker gets injured on the job. 

Duncan McCue: Are employers getting away with too many injuries and deaths on the job in Canada right now?

Maryth Yachnin: That's absolutely the case. Enforcement of workplace health and safety is not adequate. We're seeing many workers getting hurt and injured in jobs where they don't need to be hurt and injured — in workplaces that aren't as safe as they could be. There are a lot of things going on there. It's not just about enforcement against employers. It's also about the whole way the system is structured.

For example, employers get breaks on their insurance if their claims rates are low — if their workers don't have a lot of injuries and their injuries don't last long. But what that creates is that employers just want to keep their claims rates down, so they suppress claims — especially against precarious workers, migrant workers, temp workers who don't have a lot of say. So they discourage workers from reporting, they threaten them from reporting. They suppress those claims and they act adversarially against workers. They appeal claims. They fight claims in order to keep their claims costs low because they want to get that premium cut. If instead, premiums were tied to actual, tangible health and safety improvements in workplaces, you could really see a significant improvement in the actual health and safety in our workplaces.

DM: You work primarily with migrant, low-income and precarious workers? What are the issues facing them?

MY: Absolutely devastating and huge issues. There are so many system-wide issues that face precarious and migrant workers. I'll give you some examples. If a migrant worker, a temp agency worker or a precarious worker notices a hazard on the job — for example, that the way these ladders are set up is unsafe, they are seeing guys slipping and falling — they report it to their direct supervisor and the supervisor brushes them off. That worker who's concerned complains again, nothing gets done. What happens to that complainer? They get sent home. They get fired. They don't get called back to work.

And what happens to that chance to improve the health and safety? It's gone. We could have had that worker improving health and safety for all the workers. We could have had the voice of workers increased in that workplace, but instead they're being marginalized, they're being shut out, they're being fired. And that is really undermining health and safety. And when those people get hurt, same thing happens. If you get hurt and you report that injury, try to fight for your rights for fair compensation, you're getting fired, deported, repatriated. And no one is investigating those systemic bad practices in the workplace and no one is making them better.

DM: As someone who works with injured workers, what is it that frustrates you most about trying to represent those claims?

MY: There's so many things, but one of the most devastating things we've seen in recent years is how significantly mental health injuries, disabilities affect injured workers — both people who are injured on the job because of harassing, damaging, unsafe work conditions and people who have an injury on the job and because they are unable to return to work or they're harassed at work, they suffer anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, other psychological injuries and no one is helping them.

The workers' compensation board and employers are not listening to doctors about what workers need, are not listening to workers about what workers need and are not the providing the basic support you would need. It is recognized and there is lots of research to show that being depressed and anxious isn't abnormal, it's to be expected. Any one of us experiencing that kind of disruption in our lives, physical pain, disruption of our employment would be at risk for having a mental health condition. It is the norm. Why is it not the norm to provide treatment for that condition if it's the norm to develop it?

DM: What's the change needed to ensure workers' safety?

MY: The change that we think is needed is that workers compensation boards and employers to listen to workers' doctors. We are seeing increasingly the alienation of physicians treating workers, when they should be the primary point person on their care, their recovery and their return to work. We want workers' doctors to be an integral part of the system.

All comments have been edited and condensed for clarity. This online segment was produced by Ilina Ghosh.