History of workplace tragedies show us how far we've come – and how much is left to be done
Canada’s history is fraught with incidents that have shaped the way we perceive workplace health and safety today. Regardless of the industry, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past to make sure that we don’t bring them into the present.
The recent anniversary of the Westray mine disaster reminds us that there is still a long way to go when it comes to making sure that Canadian workplaces are as safe as possible. Below are some of Canada’s worst workplace disasters, and some of the changes they helped bring about for worker safety.
A note on the methodology: We have focused on peacetime 20th and 21st century disasters, and we have not counted pandemics or epidemics, or natural disasters such as the 2021 wildfires. Other disasters such as shipwrecks or air crashes were not counted where victims were primarily passengers.
1. The Hillcrest Mine Disaster. Largely regarded as the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history. It occurred on June 19, 1914, in Hillcrest, Alberta. On the morning of the incident, an explosion occurred which ripped through the whole mine. 189 workers were killed, few survived. Many of those that did suffered the after-effects of the toxic gases released that day. The provincial government opened an investigation into the circumstances of the incident in 1915. Under the Workman’s Compensation Act, widows and children were awarded compensation.
2. Springhill Mining Disasters. Not one but three mining disasters occurred in different mines in the coalfield near Springhill, Nova Scotia. The earliest occurred in 1891 where an explosion (fire caused by accumulated coal dust) went through two mine shafts, killing 125 miners. In 1956, a second explosion occurred, ultimately killing 39 miners. The explosion was caused by a mine train accident. In 1958, a “bump” (or underground seismic event) killed around 75 workers.
3. Coal Creek and Canada’s tragic history of mining disasters. We could essentially fill this list with just mining tragedies. Here are some of the most deadly. 128 workers were killed in an explosion at the Coal Creek mine in B.C. Another 34 were killed in another incident at Coal Creek in 1917. Details about the causes of the explosion remain scant. In 1928, 39 miners at the Hollinger gold mine in Ontario died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning after a fire broke out at the mine.
In 1918, 16 miners were killed on Protection Island, B.C., after falling hundreds of feet into the mine after the hoisting cable on the lowering cab frayed. An investigation later found that the salt water in the air had caused the cable to erode.
Due to its deadly history, the mining sector has often been at the fore of safety and the push for safer working conditions.
4. The Heron Bridge collapse. On August 10, 1966, a 160-foot span of the new bridge – which was being built over the Rideau River and Canal gave way. Hundreds of tons of half-set concrete dropped around 60 feet into the river valley, killing nine workers and injuring another 55.
The CLC says that an official inquest into the collapse found that the bridge’s engineers were to blame. The collapse was caused by the use of green lumber and the lack of diagonal bracing on the wooden support forms, which gave way under the concrete. The construction company, O.J. Gaffney Limited of Stratford, Ontario, was fined $5,000 – then the maximum penalty under the Construction Safety Act.
The deadly collapse led Ontario’s construction safety standards to be updated following the incident.
5. The SS Viking explosion. In 1931, the ship was being used by the Newfoundland-Labrador Film Company to make a film about the province’s annual sea hunt. On March 15, the ship – which was carrying around 138 sealers as well as the film crew – was the scene of a huge explosion, causing a fire which ultimately killed 28 of those on board. A report following the incident found that gunpowder on board the ship had been mishandled, potentially leading to the explosion.
6. The sinking of the Ocean Ranger. In 1981, the Ocean Ranger – a drilling platform owned and operated by Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, Inc of New Orleans (ODECO) – started operations in the Hibernia Oil Field near Newfoundland. A storm caused the platform to sink, killing all 84 workers on board. A Canadian Royal Commission report found several inadequacies, including lack of training, lack of proper safety equipment and a lack of safety protocols for the supply ship as well as design and construction flaws.
Since 1982, the federal government now invests annually in research and development for search and rescue technologies as a result of the disaster.
7. Quebec Bridge collapse. The bridge actually collapsed twice, once in 1907 killing 75 workers, and another time in 1916, this time killing 13 workers. In the first instance, the blame was placed on the engineers. Two engineers were held at fault, though neither received penal sanctions. The first bridge construction was stopped and construction started on a second bridge where the central span collapsed in 1916. The bridge was ultimately completed in 1919.
8. The SS Newfoundland sealing disaster. In early 1914, the ship found itself jammed in some ice off the coast of Newfoundland. Despite adverse weather conditions, the crew continued its work with the captain of the ship thinking that if things worsened they could stay overnight on the nearby ship, the SS Stephano. However, at night when a storm began, each boat thought the men were on the other’s boat. The company which owned the SS Newfoundland had previously removed the ship’s radio transceiver (viewing it as an added expense). Over 100 men were left outside for two nights. 78 sealers died.
9. Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing. Construction on the bridge in B.C. started in 1957. In June 1958, part of the bridge collapsed, leading 79 workers to fall 30 metres into the water below. 18 workers were killed (either instantly or later succumbing to their injuries), and one diver searching for the bodies drowned. A report found that the collapse was a result of poor engineering.