Working For an Employer is Dangerous for your Health, Part Four

There was an article published in the weekly Star Metro Toronto on September 4, 2019 on a health and safety issue. I will quote the article in full in order to provide the context and details of the incident:

TTC [Toronto Transit Commission] fined more than $330,000 in worker’s death

Dedes suffered major injuries after being crushed between rail car and pickup truck

Ben Spurr (Transportation Reporter)

The TTC has pleaded guilty to one count of violating workplace safety legislation in the 2017 death of track maintenance worker Tom Dedes.

‘At a hearing Tuesday in a small courtroom on the second floor of Old City Hall, prosecutors working on behalf of the Ministry of Labour agreed to drop two other charges laid against the transit agency in /Dedes’ death.

As part of its guilty plea, the TTC agreed to pay a fine of $263,000, which was the amount prosecutors recommended, Including a mandatory 25 percent victim surcharge, the total amount the transit agency will pay is $331, 250.

Each of the charges, which are non-criminal provincial offenses, carried a maximum fine of $500,000 at the time they were laid [emphasis added].

Speaking outside the courtroom, Tom’s brother George Dedes said the TTC plea, which came with a promise to improve worker safety, would give his family some closure after two years of anguish.

“It signals that they are taking steps to address the issues, which is good news,” he said.

“You want some accountability. They’ve done what they had to do. Honestly what else could they do? They can’t bring him back. They can’t change what happened.”

Dedes, an 18-year veteran who was 50 at the time of his death, suffered major injuries in an accident at the TTC’s McCowan Yard in Scarborough at around 2:18 a.m. on October 1, 2017.

According to an agreed-upon statement of facts that was read into the court record, at the time of the accident Dedes and a crew of workers were preparing to head out on a job to replace a section of track on the Scarborough RT.

They were loading equipment from a pickup truck onto a work railcar, but as they were about to leave they discovered a power pack–a hydraulic unit used in track welding–on the flatbed of the car was dead.

They moved the truck closer to the car to try to jump-start the battery pack by attaching it to the truck engine with jumper cables. The cables were too short, however, and they had to lift the pack off the flatbed using a crane.

Once it was successfully boosted, they hoisted the pack back onto the flatbed, and some of the workers got into the pickup truck.

The car operators’ view was obstructed and he couldn’t see the truck. He began advancing the car just as Dedes was walking around the back of the truck to the rear driver’s side door.

Because the rail car was on a curved track, its tail end swung out and struck Dedes, crushing him against the pickup truck. He died in the hospital eight day later.

Last September, nearly a year after his death, the ministry charged the TTC with three offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including violating regulations that require employers to ensure adequate lighting, and to provide markings or barriers to protect workers from vehicles.

Those two charges were withdrawn Tuesday and the TTC pleaded guilty to the third charge: failing to take every reasonable precaution to protect workers–specifically failing to provide a qualified employee to monitor work car movements.

The TTC says Dedes’ death has already prompted it to improve safety at its McCowan Yard and other facilities. Among the steps the agency has taken are upgrading lighting, installing visual markings and a barrier around the railcar track area, and retraining employees.

Contrast this with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113: (

TTC PLEADS GUILTY TO ONTARIO MINISTRY OF LABOUR OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY ACT VIOLATION REGARDING THE DEATH OF ATU LOCAL 113 BROTHER TOM DEDES

ATU Local 113 President Carlos Santos today released the following statement to members regarding the TTC pleading guilty to a violation of the Ontario Ministry of Labour Occupational Health and Safety Act that resulted in the death of our Brother Tom Dedes who worked as a track maintenance worker:

“This is a sad day for our union as we continue to grieve for Tom Dedes, an ATU Local 113 member who left us too soon. Today, we offer our deepest condolences and support to Tom Dedes’ family, friends and co-workers.

The TTC today finally admitted guilt for violating the Ontario Ministry of Labour Occupational Health and Safety Act by ‘failing to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.’

Today’s guilty plea is further evidence the TTC must do more to protect its workers. ATU Local 113 will continue to support our union representatives on the Joint Health and Safety Committee to ensure the TTC is held accountable and exercises due diligence with implementing all recommended changes to create a safer workplace for all.

The TTC’s admission of guilt and the resulting fine is a somewhat hollow victory for Tom Dedes’ family, friends and co-workers who still deal with the tragic events and will continue to deal with the circumstances of his loss for the rest of their lives.

The TTC should have ended this case much sooner. The TTC legal team had possession of all the reports, statements and Ontario Ministry of Labour documents for a long time, but waited until attending court, one month shy of two years since the incident occurred, to admit guilt and settle. As is usual in these cases, the only people who come out ahead are the TTC’s lawyers as the TTC continues to waste taxpayers’ money fighting cases dealing with important health and safety matters.

For the TTC, the case is over when the fine is paid. However, for those left behind who continue to work day after day at the TTC, the situation is far from over.

For almost two years, family, friends, co-workers and investigators have dealt with trauma. Thoughts of that night, reliving the experience throughout the investigation and anticipating reliving the events in an unfamiliar court environment have caused many sleepless nights and stressful days for those involved. Looking at these experiences, our union’s position is that the TTC failed to provide an adequate support system for the employees who witnessed the incident and experienced trauma, which is unacceptable.

The file is closed on the case, but the work is not done. Now, we move forward. We learn from this horrible lesson and do our best to ensure another group of workers does not need to go through this experience.

We remember Tom Dedes and we continue to offer support, kindness and understanding to those still suffering. We look ahead and do our jobs safely. We have the right to work safe and come home safe. Now, more than ever, members need to have an awareness of their work environment and exercise their rights if, at any time, they do not feel safe.

ATU Local 113 will continue to fight for the TTC to provide a safer workplace and proper support for all workers who experience trauma.”

The emphasis of the union is, on the one hand, the emotional aspect of the death and, on the other, the moral irresponsibility of TTC management for ensuring safety and in providing timely closure for family and friends of those who die.

Although the union’s attitude is certainly more humane than the attitude of TTC management, it is debatable whether that is all that can be learned from this situation. To say the following by the ATU union fails to address the issue of the power of management as representative of employers:

We look ahead and do our jobs safely. We have the right to work safe and come home safe. Now, more than ever, members need to have an awareness of their work environment and exercise their rights if, at any time, they do not feel safe.

This fails to take into account the level of fear characteristic of the work environment, whether implicit or explicit. Workers know, even though they rarely explicitly admit it, that they are economically dependent on employers in general and their specific employer in particular. This economic dependence often prevents them from asserting their “rights” out of fear of retaliation by management.

Secondly, the inadequacy of worker rights with regard to safety are not even acknowledged. Yes, workers have the right to refuse to work if they consider the work to be unusually unsafe–but if their work is usually unsafe, they have no right to refuse to work. Thus, when I worked as a teacher, the educational assistants were informed that they could not refuse to work with students who were violent in one way or another because such situations formed part of their normal duties.

Thirdly, the union avoids the issue of the extent to which workers can engage in work that is unsafe no matter how many precautions they take since it is employers and their managerial representatives who generally provide the working context for work and not workers.

Fourthly, the union does not even bring up the issue of the charge(s) not being criminal charges. In the case of deaths caused by individual citizens, charges can have a criminal character. Why are they not here? Why the silence over the issue by the union?

The inadequacy of the union point of view can also be seen in an exchange I recently had the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC) Facebook page with someone concerning safety at work. The following exchange occurred:

Jonathan Horchata Delgado Give the crews the proper training and guidance they need in an environment that encourages it. Your accident rates will plummet. You’re only as good as the training you have.

Fred Harris The view that “accidents” are caused mainly by a lack of training is a myth. Employers control many conditions over which workers have no control–and employers in the private sector are out to obtain as much profit as they can. There is hardly any wonder that people are injured or die.

As I wrote on my blog:

I submitted an article for the popular education journal Our Schools/Our Selves concerning the issue of safety (and the lack of critical thinking skills that is embodied in two Ontario curricula on Equity and Social Justice). In that article, I quote:

More than 1000 employees die every year in Canada on the job, and about 630,000 are injured every year (Bob Barnetson, 2010, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, p. 2). The same year as the publication of that work saw 554 homicides (Tina Mahonny, 2011, Homicide in Canada, 2010. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, p. 1) —the number of employee deaths at work under the power of employers was around double the number of murders.

Murders are the focus of the social media and the criminal legal system. Inquiries into murders do occur, and some are very thorough. On the other hand, inquiries into the extent to which the pursuit of profit played a major role in the death of employees (or the extent to which the undemocratic nature of work of public-sector employers) are lacking. There is an implicit assumption that such deaths are acceptable and the cost of living in the modern world. Should not those concerned with social justice query such an assumption? Is there much discussion concerning the facts? Or is there silence over such facts? Should those concerned with social justice inquire into the ‘perspectives and values’ of curriculum designers? Should they attempt to “detect bias” in such documents?

Should not the issue of the relation between the pursuit of profit and needless deaths be a focus for public discussion on an ongoing basis if social justice is to be addressed? Where is the public discussion over the issue? Indeed, if critical thinking is to lead to “issues of power and justice in society,” you would expect to see inquiry into the power of employers and the relation of that power to the death, dismemberment and injury of workers. Is there any reference to such an issue in the two curricula documents?

Are not workers in our society bought and sold on a market called the labour market? As long as they are, they are “costs” to employers, and as costs employers tend to try to reduce such costs in order to obtain more profit (in the private sector). One of the ways in which they can reduce costs is by not spending much money on equipment and training that relates to safety. The temptation will always be there as long as employers exist and have control over workers. See (The Money Circuit of Capital) for an explanation.)”

The view, furthermore, that employers can invade our privacy any way they like because other employers do it is absurd; it assumes that what employers do in the first place is somehow legitimate.

 

Jonathan Horchata Delgado Fred Harris i agree that employers shouldn’t be invading privacy, as it breeds a culture of fear and mistrust, and big gap between managers and crews, and I see your point about training, but, well trained staff with good resources, even if the equipment isn’t top tier, shouldn’t be a deciding factor in safety. Companies are always about profits, true. I still believe that if you’re trained and feel you have access to proper resources, and skill is nurtured, your accident rate would still be low. I’m speaking from experience once working for probably the worst company for equipment, and we had nearly zero accidents. Also, in the military, which many good companies utilize or training matrixes, teach the human factor is the main quotient in accidents. Not disagreeing in total with you, but I wouldn’t blanket accidents and training as a myth completely. 

Fred Harris I did not say that it was “entirely” a myth–but to view training as the deciding factor in accidents is a myth.

And the view that “if you’re trained and feel you have access to proper resources, and skill is nurtured, your accident rates would still be low.” It is not about “feeling you have access to proper resources” but actually having such resources–and that is in the hands of employers, in general–employers whose aim is profit.

Furthermore, workers are “costs” for employers, and as costs, the “cost” for probable accidents is factored into determining whether to cut corners, etc.

Of course, some training can reduce accidents–but the idea that it is mainly the fault of workers that “accidents” occur is a myth.

Further evidence of the limitations of the union point of view is the posts on the TAWC Facebook page about “accidents.” The reference is to a worker killed when a luggage vehicle flipped over, pinned and killed at the North Carolina Charlotte-Douglas International Airport:

https://www.fox46charlotte.com/news/airline-employee-killed-after-luggage-vehicle-flips-pins-worker-at-clt-airport

At the above link, it says: One of the construction workers at the airport said: “It’s like a racetrack out there.” The reporter explains: “He was referring to how busy the tarmac is out there, with so much traffic in the area.”  Why would it be like a “racetrack” out on the tarmac? Perhaps because it was more profitable for the various airlines than a less intensive workplace? One of the ways that employers can obtain more profit is by increasing the level of intensity of work.

The union, however, never mentioned this factor as a social cause in the accident. There will be an investigation, but it is highly doubtful that the accident will be linked to the pursuit of profit. Since, however, workers are mere means for obtaining more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital), it is understandable why the tarmack would be like a racetrack.

American Airlines, of course, expressed the following rhetoric:

American Airlines is deeply saddened by the death of one of our team members from Piedmont Airlines late last night. Right now our priority is caring for his family, and for our team in Charlotte.

Let us now listen to the union point of view in relation to safety in general:

TAWC commented on its Facebook page:

Sending love and solidarity from YYZ to the friends, family, and coworkers of the worker that lost his life last night in Charlotte.

Work smart, stay safe, and look out for one another. Airport workers across the globe share the same goal, we all want to go home safely at the end of the day.

On August 14, 2019, the TAWC made a comment about another “accident”–this time a Delta tug operator was killed on the job:

Work Smart!
Work Safe!

Deepest sympathies to yet another fallen airport worker

Solidarity is undoubtedly important. And working as safe as you can is also important. But how can workers really work safe (and smart) when they are subject to pressure to work as fast as possible in order to make as much profit as possible for the employers (or in order to minimize costs in the case of both public sector and private sector employers)? It remains a mystery to me.

The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council had the following on their Facebook site on August 19, 2019:

Another serious accident involving a baggage tractor. This time it’s one of our YYZ colleagues.

We wish a speedy recovery to our YYZ Coworker.

Work Smart! Work Safe!

On a Twitter linked to this, Tom Podeloc posted:

INCIDENT Baggage handler trapped under a tractor. Extricated by Toronto Pearson Fire. Transported to trauma centre by Peel Paramedics with serious injuries. Scene being held for investigation. Occurred on the ramp between T1 & T3.

Of course, union references to such incidents and the call for both solidarity and more training is important. However, is this really enough? Should not union reps recognize that the existence of a class of employers and the existence of social structures that support their existence necessarily contribute to death and injury?  Why do the unions ignore the existence of a class of employers as such, the social structures that support them and the deadly consequences that flow from their continued existence?

It is hardly enough to call for solidarity and to work safely. Workers cannot work safely as long as employers as a class exist and as long as their exist social structures that support the existence of such a class of employers.

Workers deserve better than a call for solidarity on the basis of the continued existence of a class of employers–they deserve to be treated as human beings–an impossibility under the given social structures and relations. Full solidarity demands questioning the power of employers as such. Otherwise, human carnage, injury and suffering will continue needlessly.

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