On National Day of Mourning, researcher calls for a closer look at worker deaths in the North

·3 min read
Sean Tucker is an associate professor of occupational health and safety in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina.  (Submitted by Sean Tucker - image credit)
Sean Tucker is an associate professor of occupational health and safety in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. (Submitted by Sean Tucker - image credit)

A researcher who studies workplace fatalities and injuries says it's time the North took a closer look at what's causing so many workers to lose their lives on the job.

Earlier this week, CBC News reported that 14 people lost their lives while working in Nunavut, the N.W.T. or Yukon in 2021 — the highest number in a decade. That number rose to 15 Thursday as a medical report confirmed an additional death of a person in 2021 who had previously been injured.

All 15 people will be remembered in ceremonies across the North today, the National Day of Mourning for workers who've died or were injured on the job.

Sean Tucker is an associate professor of occupational health and safety in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. For the past five years, he's co-authored a report that looks at workplace deaths across the country.

"Consistently, Nunavut and the N.W.T. and Yukon come out on top in terms of highest fatality rates, and this year it's even worse," he said, adding little is known about why exactly that's the case.

From 2016 to 2020, the N.W.T. and Nunavut had an average five-year fatality rate (at 7.1) nearly double the rate in New Brunswick (3.3) and Newfoundland and Labrador (3.4) and an order of magnitude higher than that of Manitoba (1.1) or Ontario (1.3).

Submitted by Sean Tucker
Submitted by Sean Tucker

The Workers Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC) releases numbers, but few other details about workplace deaths. CBC News has reported only eight of the names of those who died.

Tucker said a closer investigation could determine whether there are common factors in the deaths and what can be done to prevent them. He said, otherwise, the North is at risk of accepting a status quo that simply isn't right.

"It just simply isn't normal. And I don't think it's acceptable to have … multiple fatalities each year."

'Very sad for a lot of us'

Margaret Nakashuk is Nunavut's minister responsible for the WSCC. She'll attend the Day of Mourning ceremony at the Nunavut Legislature at noon Thursday.

In 2012, seven people died while working in Nunavut: three in a helicopter crash near Resolute Bay, one aboard the Suvak fishing vessel in late fall, and two with COVID-19, about whom little is known. No details were offered about the seventh death.

Matisse Harvey/CBC
Matisse Harvey/CBC

"It's very sad for a lot of us," Nakashuk told CBC News. "Especially for the family members, friends and colleagues that have had to experience the loss of a loved one."

Asked whether she would support a closer look at the deaths, Nakashuk said that the WSCC already takes a close look at anything that comes to the office.

Paulie Chinna is the minister responsible for the WSCC in the N.W.T., which saw four deaths in 2021.

"Every death that occurs in a workplace in the N.W.T. is a tragedy," she said in a written statement.

"Our thoughts continue to be with the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in a workplace related death."

'What can be done?'

Every death on the job is unique.

When news broke of the death aboard the Suvak, Premier P.J. Akeeagok issued a statement that read in part: "This tragic event reminds us of the courage it takes to be a fisherman and the risks of the work that they do out on the ocean."

But Tucker takes a different view.

He believes every workplace death can be prevented, first by understanding the underlying causes.

"Even if … a portion of them are related to transportation — how can we make the transportation safer? What can be done?" he asks. "Who are involved in these incidents, either in air or motor vehicle? What were some of the common factors? What can we do to address this?"

Otherwise, he says, even more families will be involved in the National Day of Mourning.

And for them, according to Tucker, "it's a very difficult time of year."

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