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Ex-Westray miner calls for law crackdown to protect workers

05/08/2012 10:46 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

A former Westray Mine worker gave an emotional account on Parliament Hill this morning of how he tried to rescue fellow miners following a deadly explosion at the Plymouth, N.S., site 20 years ago, and urged for more to be done to protect employees.

"I know what hell looks like after that," Vern Theriault, speaking at a news conference Tuesday in Ottawa, said as he described going underground to search for survivors on May 9, 1992.

Theriault had just finished an overnight shift at the mine, and later heard about the explosion. He returned to the site to join the search effort, which lasted five days, and operated on no sleep and lots of adrenaline until the rescue mission was called off, he said.

Twenty-six men died and 11 bodies were never recovered.

Theriault was joined at the news conference by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, NDP MP Robert Chisholm and the national director of the United Steelworkers.

The union is launching a campaign to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the explosion. It aims to raise awareness of the changes made to the Criminal Code in the wake of the disaster.

An inquiry found the owner and managers were responsible for dangerous conditions at the mine, but the Crown wasn't able to prosecute any employers.

Theriault was among those who lobbied for the Criminal Code changes, and in 2004, the so-called Westray bill was passed in the House of Commons with all-party support. It is now possible to charge corporate brass for their failure to protect workers.

Theriault held back tears as he talked about fighting for those changes, and how they have had so little effect.

"The bill got passed in 2004 ... over the years, I didn't see it being used. There's charges but it's not being enforced," he said. "Let's use it."

According to Ken Neumann, national director of the Steelworkers union, only six charges have ever been laid and none of the cases was successfully prosecuted — they were either settled by plea bargains or the imposition of fines.

There have been an estimated 8,000 work-related deaths since the law was passed, he said.

Lack of enforcement is 'unacceptable'

"Twenty years later, we must remind MPs of their important contribution to improving the law, and at the same time raise awareness and educate attorney generals of the provinces to enforce the Westray act fully and completely," Neumann said.

There has to be more political will to enforce the laws, he said. "This is just totally unacceptable."

MacKay, a Crown prosecutor at the time of the Westray explosion, said Neumann is right and that he has raised the issue with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. Nicholson pledged to work with his provincial counterparts to give them support in enforcing the laws, MacKay said.

"We all know that one Westray tragedy is one too many," he said.

The defence minister said the Conservative government is committed to continuing to call for the laws to be acted upon.

"The law is there ... this attempt today is to raise more awareness, to call for enforcement and to call for co-operation for greater workplace safety," said MacKay.

MacKay was a key figure in getting the Westray act passed and is personally connected to the mine. He knew men who worked there, and recalled driving past it the morning of the explosion and spending time there as a young student.

"Sadly this is not an area of the law where clearly we see we have not been able to achieve a successful prosecution yet," he said, adding there are many factors that determine the outcome of a case, including the evidence that is collected.

The intent of the law is to hold people criminally responsible and raise the standards for companies to ensure they're fulfilling their responsibilities for workplace safety, said MacKay.

He said there was political will when the Criminal Code was changed, and now the problem is one of enforcement.

Raitt said she intends to raise the matter with her provincial and territorial counterparts when she meets with them in the fall.

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