Westray tragedy turned man’s focus to health and safety


Published on May 10, 2017

Gordon Walsh, a former Westray miner, attended the 25th anniversary service for the Plymouth mining disaster. His life now focuses on health and safety in the workplace.

PLYMOUTH, N.S. – Gordon Walsh says he has turned a page.

After attending the 25th anniversary services for the mining explosion that killed 26 of his co-workers, he took time to reflect on how it has shaped his life.
“It was a great opportunity to turn a page and have new chapter of thinking on workplace health and safety and never not respecting the sacrifice of going to work. This will always shape who you are.”    

Walsh worked underground for nine months leading up to the May 9, 1992, explosion and later moved to Calgary where he has been working in health and safety for the past 13 years.

“I can’t say I was interested in health and safety and didn't know much about it until I experienced Westray. Everything changed after that.”
FULL COVERAGE: Remembering Westray: 25 years

He started by working on a health and safety committee with Calgary transit and built up his training certifications. Currently, he manages a training group out of Enform from Calgary, an advocate and leading resource for the continuous improvement of safety performance.

But even though he may be thousands of miles away, Westray is never far from his mind. He has a copy of the inquiry manual sitting on his desk and a medal of bravery statement on his office wall, but rarely does he host a training session without telling people about his experiences in the mine and the price that was paid for working in an environment where production took priority over safety.

He admits that speaking about his own experiences captures everyone’s attention because there is no better example of the importance of workplace safety than Westray.

“Most people will get away with things for quite a long time and most people will not have a disaster and most will get lucky and make a living doing something they get away with. But when you are working in a violate working environment like oil and gas or mining, you will fail and it will be catastrophic.”

Walsh said larger western companies, particularly those in oil and gas, have good safety protocols in place, but some companies are still playing roulette.

For example, he said, if someone starts their own business, chances are they are doing it because they have a passion for work, but probably have little knowledge of accounting, human resources or safety. An easy fix to this would be to have new business owners take a mandatory program that teaches them about emergency response plans and business insurance so that when they open their doors, they will know how to manage their liability and risk.

Nova Scotia, mostly because of Westray, has been very progressive with its health and safety initiatives, but it takes more than just government laws or Criminal Codes to make people stand up and take notice, he said.

“It does take a community to change the cultural acceptance of workplace injury and death. A community has to change its thinking.”

Getting the importance of safety in the workplace across to everyone will take a shift in people’s thinking, but it can be done. For example, he said, young people are now getting the message that smoking cigarettes is not good for your health and adults who drove for 40 years are now wearing seatbelts in vehicles.

But its essential to get that message into schools and reach younger generations about workforce issues, even at school level, that they need to be properly trained for their job.

“We need to impact people at a much younger age at the elementary school level. People who are adults need to be good mentors.”

Walsh said he will never forget his time working underground, but was pleased to tell families in Pictou County this week that people are learning from the tragedy.

“It really is a national event. It went from the explosion to the ramifications of the inquiry and Bill C-45 to law and liability to organizations where the message is spread across the land so to speak.”