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Book documents efforts since Westray to prevent workplace deaths

The cover for Hell’s History: The USW’s fight to prevent workplace deaths and injuries from the 1992 Westray Mine disaster through 2016. The book is written by Tom Sandborn.
The cover for Hell’s History: The USW’s fight to prevent workplace deaths and injuries from the 1992 Westray Mine disaster through 2016. The book is written by Tom Sandborn.

On May 9 Pictou County will remember the 25th Anniversary of the Westray Mine explosion, which claimed the lives of 26 miners.

Tom Sandborn hopes that when they do, the country also takes a hard look at workplace safety in Canada and what has been accomplished since that tragedy and what still needs to change.

Tom Sandborn hopes that when they do, the country also takes a hard look at workplace safety in Canada and what has been accomplished since that tragedy and what still needs to change.

He writes about it in a short book that’s been posted online and is being published by the United Steelworkers. He’s titled it Hell’s History.

“This is a small book about the Westray Mine disaster and the decade-long lobbying effort the USW mounted to get a law passed that would allow boardroom types and senior managers who make negligent decisions that end up killing or maiming their workers to be criminally prosecuted,” Sandborn said.

The PDF version is currently available for free download on the website Stop the Killing: Enforce the Law (www.stopthekilling.ca), but he said they will also be selling copies of it at bookstores and hope to have a launch in Pictou County sometime this year around the anniversary of the explosion.

Sandborn is a longtime journalist and said he approached the United Steel Workers about writing about the 25th anniversary and the fight to hold employers criminally responsible in cases of neglect that led to worker deaths.

The scope of the book covers everything from Westray itself to the mill fire explosions in British Columbia in 2012. Sandborn said the situations that led to those explosions are comparable to the Westray explosions.

“A lot of the circumstances surrounding those deaths were eerily similar.”

He gives, as example, long shifts, particulate in the air and explosions that killed.

“There was a way in which the two seemed like bookends in a story.”

For the book, Sandborn interviewed families of those killed in the mine disaster as well as did fresh research on other tragedies since then.

While it was a satisfying story to write because of the importance of improving worker safety, Sandborn said one of the real payoffs of the work that surprised him was the people he met and the stories he heard of the community’s response.

“I was surprised and moved over and over again at how people pulled together and helped each other,” he said.

“It’s easy to get cynical when you look at a story like this and think money shapes everything,” he said. It’s wonderful to find stories that show generosity and goodwill.”

What shocks him still though is the number of people who still die each year in workplace accidents. More than 1,000 workers across Canada are killed on the job each year.

He hopes that this story of Westray and the fight of the United Steelworkers to address the problem will inspire change.

Steve Hunt, president of the United Steelworkers, has attended Westray remembrance ceremonies in the past and knows the impact the explosion had. He believes the story Sandborn shares will help highlight that.

“There’s a lot in it. It’s 25 years of fighting for justice for 26 workers who lost their lives and all the people who were affected by it…. It was a tragedy at the time and still is today.”

If there’s any good that can come out of a tragedy like Westray, he believes it’s in improved safety and more accountability for those responsible for workers’ wellbeing.

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