People have not always had the right to be safe. There was a time when workers, especially immigrants, were exploited. To make a living, they often had to work very dangerous, low-paying jobs. Since their mother tongue was a foreign language, getting information on what few rights they had was not easy.
That leads us to a sad story that took place on March 17, 1960. Five Italian immigrants were working in a tunnel in Hogg’s Hollow, under the Don River in Toronto. The tunnel was 36 inches in diameter. No safety equipment had been provided.
Diagram of the disaster. The Telegram, March 24, 1960.
That day, a fire broke out. Unable to see through the smoke and fire, the workers could not find their way out. It was complete chaos, and it ended in tragedy. The five men were buried alive and died of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation by inhalation.
This incident was a real wake-up call. The need for reform in occupational health and safety was very clear. Unions joined together and lobbied the Ontario government to protect workers from occupational hazards using stories like this to make their case.
Legislation on industrial safety and occupational health and safety was then introduced to protect Canadian workers. This would form the basis of the Canada Labour Code. Through their efforts, unions got the government to recognize three important workers’ rights:
- The right to refuse unsafe work
- The right to be informed of workplace hazards
- The right to participate in health and safety discussions
Unions are still leading the struggle today. By changing policies, regulations or legislation, many employers continue to put the health and safety of workers at risk. We must all remain vigilant to ensure that those rights acquired at the cost of human lives are not lost or undermined.