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Westray workers knew they were in danger: USW


Just weeks before the May 9 disaster, Hughie MacArthur sat in the Heather Hotel and listened to Westray miners speak about the dangers in their workplace.

As a veteran miner himself, who had turned his attention to health and safety with the United Steelworkers, he knew their fears were real.

“They explained to my comrades and myself that the mine wasn't being treated with stone dust which would make the coal dust ineffective. A dust explosion is much more intense than a methane explosion.”

MacArthur said they told him stories of safety equipment being turned off so production could continue and the use of dangerous tools such as torches being taken into the mine, which had methane readings well above the acceptable level.

He and other USW reps drove to the Plymouth mine site and asked to be allowed to see for themselves the conditions of the mine, but “we were turned down flat.”
FULL COVERAGE: Remembering Westray: 25 years

MacArthur said Westray was a new mine that should have had the best of everything, but instead, it put its workers in danger every day with high methane levels, unsafe working conditions and abusive behaviour towards employees by mine management.

“A lot of guys knew they were danger and knew the mine was dangerous but they had families to feed, cars and houses to pay for,” he said. “These guys were there to do their job and it was a good-paying job so it was hard to turn down. We tried to talk some of them into quitting but we were turned down. They had families to feed.”

MacArthur was one of a many speakers who participated in student-attended events at the Museum of Industry on Tuesday marking the 25th anniversary of Westray.

He said he holds a special place in his heart for the Westray miners because of the time he spent with them.

“They meant a lot to me,” he said. “You saw their faces. They were young. You got to know them.”

During the forum, guest speakers spoke of their experiences with Westray, but also of the importance of workplace safety and employee rights.

Students from Pictou Academy, Northumberland Regional High School and North Nova Education Centre were told that 648 people have died as a result of workplace incidents since 1992.

“Those 648 workers didn't go to work to die,” said Danny Canvanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour. “They thought they were coming home that night and they didn’t.”

The United Steelworkers have been running their Stop the Killing campaign since 2012 and the message is getting to a younger generation that workers have rights.  

The panelists said it is easy to read the statistics and hear about their rules and regulations, but they were encouraged to take it one step further by paying close attention to the faces of the 26 miners who died on May 9.

“Before you leave here today, look at these pictures,” said one panellist. “They are not numbers. They are people.”

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