Essay by Bittle, Hébert and Chen: Estimating work-related deaths in Canada

Every month, the Blog of the Department of Criminology publishes essays written by our colleagues featuring their research or their analysis of current issues. In this essay, Steven Bittle, Jasmine Hébert and Ashley Chen discuss their report on work-related deaths in Canada.

Estimating work-related deaths in Canada

By Steven Bittle (Associate Professor), Jasmine Hébert (PhD Student) and Ashley Chen (former MA student)

The Canadian Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) annually publishes data on workplace fatalities across the country. According to the AWCBC, from 2000 to 2016 there were 16,216 worker deaths, with a high of 1,098 fatalities in 2005 and a low of 852 in 2015. The average annual death toll during this period is 954. Approximately two-thirds of these fatalities are occupational disease related, with the remaining deaths caused by fatal incidents.

As troubling as the AWCBC’s figures are in their own right, they tell only part of the story. In Canada, for a fatality to be officially counted it must be “founded,” meaning it must result “from a work-related incident (including disease) that has been accepted for compensation” by a WCB or commission. When it comes to occupational disease, for instance, compensation boards do not recognize every disease as compensable. There is a long history of workers struggling for the inclusion of particular diseases in compensation schemes, and even if a disease is compensable, it does not ensure the filing of a claim for every death from said disease, nor does it equate to an automatic acceptance upon a claim’s submission.

Our research, recently published in the journal Labour/Le Travail, looks beyond official figures to generate a more accurate estimate of the number of annual work-related deaths in Canada. Relying on a range of data sources, and adopting a broad definition of what constitutes a work-related fatality, we estimate the number of annual work-related fatalities in Canada is at least ten to thirteen times higher than the approximately 900 to 1,000 annual average fatalities reported by the AWCBC.  

One question we explore in our research is whether commuting fatalities should count as occupational deaths. While acknowledging the debate about whether these incidents are truly work related, we nevertheless question their exclusion when considering that the only reason these people were on the road was to get to and from work. What’s more, the conditions in which people commute is a potentially important work-related matter given that many people work increasingly longer working hours and face pressures to commute to work despite poor driving conditions. Based on this, we use Statistics Canada and Transport Canada data to suggest that approximately 466 annual collision fatalities have the potential to be work related.

Our research also considers various work-related diseases/illnesses including: work-related suicides; occupational cancers; and occupational disease. Work-related suicides are a growing concern for researchers, workers’ rights groups, and organized labour. In many instances, conditions at work significantly contribute to workers’ deteriorating mental health. Stressful working conditions add to the already heavy burden that many people face as they struggle to keep up with the demands of modern capitalism. In this case we start from the premise that roughly 10% of all suicides are work related, as argued in the existing research, to uncover approximately 400 work-related suicides in Canada each year.

Finally, it is common knowledge that there are untold cancer-related deaths from occupational exposures. Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer of the protective lining of many internal organs, primarily the lungs. Its primary cause is the inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres in the workplace. Using Canadian Cancer Society statistics, we conclude that approximately 485 mesothelioma deaths occur annually. In addition, we also sought estimates of the total number of cancer deaths caused by occupational exposure. Relying on previous research that estimates the proportion of cancer cases with links to occupational exposure, and applying these figures to Canadian cancer rates, we found between 5,959-11,919 cancer deaths annually that might be work related.  

Our conclusions will not surprise anyone familiar with occupational health and safety issues; there is broad recognition across the research literature and within the union/labour movement that many more people die each year from a work-related incident or illness than what is officially recorded. We hope our research helps to expose the systematic underestimation of work-related fatalities in Canada, a problem that only reinforces the historic belief that people are injured or sickened at work in limited (accidental) circumstances. From our perspective, this is a serious matter that requires further and immediate scrutiny.