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Nova Scotian injured workers form associations to defend their interests

Fishermens' Memorial in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

HALIFAX (7 January 2007) - WORKING PEOPLE daily face growing risks of injury whether on the shop floor or in the fields, especially migrant and unorganized workers, but also in the unionized sector.

Suffering an injury in the workplace can be a debilitating experience for victims, both physically and mentally. Injured workers suffer an immediate loss of income and self-esteem; they have to fend for themselves - looking into themselves to find the resources to rebuild their lives. The right to safe and healthy working conditions and to adequate compensation are basic human rights. That this is a daily struggle goes without saying.

For this reason injured workers associations have been forming throughout Nova Scotia to defend their interests and offer practical support to injured workers as they are forced to navigate their way through the arbitrary bureaucracy of the Workers Compensation Board.

Mainland Injured Workers Association is one of three such groups in Nova Scotia that receives funding from the provincial government. It's important for injured workers to have an outlet like Mainland, says the association's president June Labrador, "so that they feel that they're not alone, [that] there's other people out there in the same situation.

The figures are appalling and speak for themselves. In 2005 there were 8,998 time-loss injuries in Nova Scotia and 27 fatalities as the result of accidents in the workplace according to the Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada. Time-loss injuries occur when an employee is compensated for loss of wages or permanent disability after a work-related injury. Nationally, the Canadian Labour Congress chose "Organizing for Healthier and Safer Workplaces" as its theme for the Day of Mourning last year. The CLC pointed out that far from the situation of workers having improved since 1984 when the day of mourning was established, even the official figures on workplace deaths show the numbers have risen. In Canada, the CLC estimates that about 1,000 workers a year die on the job and from work-related diseases (this is only those deaths officially recognized) and one million suffer injuries or get sick on the job.

Mainland, which incorporated in 2003, acts as a kind of middleman between injured workers and the Worker's Compensation Board.

"We started out as a support group to help try to navigate through the worker's compensation system, which is very hard to understand for injured workers," says Labrador. The system is very difficult for people to navigate, to determine what they are entitled to and how they can get it.

Membership increased three hundred per cent in three years

Members meet on the third Tuesday of every month at Edgewood United Church Hall on the corner of Connaught Avenue and Young Street in Halifax. In the beginning the association had 30 members. Three years later it boasts over 300, the result of word of mouth.

"Where we see that there [are] problems, that they've made maybe the wrong decision and we see differently than they do, we try to talk to them, try to avoid going through the appeals system," says Labrador. "Cause it's a long process."

Labrador knows this first hand. In 1996 she injured her back, the most common workplace injury, while lifting stock in a retail store she was managing.

"You just lift and move the wrong way. A lot of the time that's how accidents happen."

After the Worker's Compensation Board terminated her benefits that same year, she "fought through the system" in the appeals process. It took until 2000 for Labrador to win her case.

Currently, injured workers will receive 75 per cent of their net income for the first 26 weeks after their claim has been approved. After that workers have to suffer through a long period at 85 percent of their net income. The board caps net income at $46,000 meaning that the more money someone makes the more they have to lose if they become injured.

"It's very difficult to live on that," says Labrador.

"I think it's a money issue"

Of course the best way to combat workplace injuries is to educate businesses about prevention together with the political demand that Nova Scotia and Canada enforce the human right to safe and healthy working conditions and stop the worsening working conditions that are a recipe for disaster.

"There's some bad employers, there's a lot of good employers," she says referring to attitudes to workplace safety. The bad employers need to be targeted and educated.

"I think it's a money issue. They're looking at right now not long term."

According to Insurance Canada, if more companies worked to prevent workplace injuries and ensured that injured workers returned to work in a safe and timely manner, there would be significant cost savings in the coming years. Those savings could then be used to improve the system for employees and employers.

Labrador wishes that the Workers Compensation Board system treated the injured workers it serves better.

"We all make mistakes," concedes Labrador. "But there just seems to be too many. And then it goes through the appeals system and years down the road you win your case. But in that year workers are suffering, going without benefits and losing everything that they have."

The fact that injured Nova Scotian workers have had to form three such associations to defend their interests indicates two developments in society.

Firstly, it shows the extent and devastation of workplace injuries and fatalities, the conditions of the injured workers, and the failure of state agencies to serve their interests.

Secondly, it is Nova Scotian workers who are showing social responsibility for these conditions; they are taking action and declaring that they are taking up the defence of the rights of all workers to safe and healthy working conditions, be they unionized or not, "documented" or not.

The formation of their own organizations to put their own weight behind their demands is their social achievement.

Related Reading on the Internet

"No More Talks! Justice for Injured Workers!"
On December 7, the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups held its annual day of action, coinciding with the beginning of the holiday season. The aim is to draw attention to the tragic situation of poverty and isolation facing injured workers, which is felt particularly strongly at this time of year. It is also to renew the pledge for justice for injured workers so that their right to adequate compensation is recognized and provided with a guarantee. Rallies were held in Toronto, St. Catherines and Thunder Bay.

Injured Workers Day was commemorated in Halifax April 28th as throughout Canada and the world as workers honoured those who have been killed, injured or disabled on the job, renewing their pledge to force governments to enforce the human right to safe and healthy working conditions. SAM MACLEAN

* The Call Centre - MAX MICHAUD, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers

* Nursing; the highest sickness rate of any occupation - ANDY SUMMERS, Ontario Nurses Association

National Work Injuries Statistics Program Work Injuries and Diseases
Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC)

Remembrance and Reminders of Fallen Rideau Canal Workers 1826-1832 - Poster for Ottawa Injured Workers Day Event, 28 April 2006

* Ian Gormely is an intern with shunpiking magazine and a student in the Department of Journalism at the University of King's College, Halifax.

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