Echoes of Westray: Canada’s National Day of Mourning and the West Fertilizer Company Explosion

USGov-DOL, “Workers’ Memorial Day Poster,” April 23 2010. Source: Wikipedia Commons

USGov-DOL, “Workers’ Memorial Day Poster,” April 23 2010. Source: Wikipedia Commons

By Lachlan MacKinnon

This Sunday, cities across Canada will hold ceremonies in honour of the National Day of Mourning. This day is intended for Canadians to remember and reflect upon workers who have been killed on the job. Members of the Canadian Labour Congress started the Day of Mourning in the 1980s, and the federal government adopted it in 1991. Today, when national debate questions the importance and necessity of workers’ organizations, it is important to note that in 2011 more than 919 Canadians were killed on the job and workers suffered nearly 250,000 time-loss injuries.[1] These numbers indicate that the modern workplace remains a dangerous place for many Canadians. Historians are well positioned to synthesize the study of working-class experience with modern activism to appeal for rational regulatory policy and workers’ input into workplace practice.

Struggles for workplace safety should not simply be considered the domain of the past. Just last week, amidst the horror of the Boston attack coverage, another story emerged from the United States. An explosion rocked the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, damaging homes and businesses in the surrounding neighbourhood. At this point, NPR is reporting that at least 15 people have been killed and more than 200 injured. Despite the existence of federal and state regulations, the plant did not have sprinkler systems, shut-off valves, or blast walls installed. The company had also failed to report their handling of ammonium nitrate to the Department of Homeland Security for required inspections. They had been processing more than 1,350 times the amount of this material that is necessary to report. These oversights caused Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson to remark, “It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid [sic].”

Shane.torgerson, "West Explosion Aerial," April 21 2013. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Shane.torgerson, “West Explosion Aerial,” April 21 2013. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Despite these lapses, West Fertilizer Co. continued to practice unsafe operations under the noses of federal regulators. The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last inspected the site more than two decades ago in 1985. During this inspection, OSHA found that the company was failing to store ammonium nitrate properly and did not provide proper respiratory equipment for its workers. The company was charged $30 for these infractions. The AFL-CIO has long complained that OSHA is drastically understaffed and underfunded. In 2010, a study commissioned by the labour organization found that the ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers in the United States was 1:58,687. In order to comply with targets set by the United Nations International Labour Organization, OSHA would require 12,782 additional inspectors.[2]

The disaster in Texas brings to mind a particularly Canadian example of the importance of workplace safety and regulatory enforcement. On May 9th, 1992, the Westray Mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia exploded, killing 26 miners. This disaster, like the West Fertilizer explosion, was not unforeseen. Cave-ins occurred almost daily, workplace safety practices were lax, and equipment failures were also common. Although the UMW had made a union drive at the mine, local miners feared that poor safety conditions would force the closure of the mine if they decided to unionize. Plymouth, at the time, suffered from high unemployment and many miners felt lucky to find work within their community. Curragh Resources Incorporated was charged with 52 non-criminal counts of unsafe mining practices and mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Perry were charged with criminal negligence and manslaughter. Unfortunately, these charges were dropped after a bungled provincial investigation, which included the misplacement of several boxes of evidence. Curragh CEO Clifford Frame, who refused to testify at the provincial inquiry into the Westray Disaster, faced no repercussions and continued working within mining companies until his retirement in 2008.

Bcameron3, "Westray Memorial," May 25 2007. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Bcameron3, “Westray Memorial,” May 25 2007. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The families and friends of Westray victims gather each year on May 9th in Plymouth for a remembrance ceremony. At the 2012 ceremony, USWA member Steven Hunt spoke not only of the necessity for a strong regulatory framework, but also for government enforcement of existing regulations. He said: “It’s going to take some governments with some courage, it’s going to take some regulators with some courage, it’s going to take town council with courage to challenge the laws and challenge what they know is wrong.”

The recent events in Texas show that this is a lesson that remains important on both sides of the border. Although much has changed in twenty years, much remains the same in terms of political attitudes towards workers’ safety. As we gather on Sunday to remember working Canadians who have lost their lives, we must also consider our present attitudes towards regulation, enforcement, and the legal framework surrounding on-the-job safety. Let’s remember the experience of Westray, the recent disaster at West Fertilizer Co., and countless other examples, and act to move towards a future where workplace safety is taken seriously and attempts to shirk responsibility are rightly condemned.

Lachlan MacKinnon is currently a Ph.D. student at Concordia University focusing on workers’ experiences of deindustrialization in Atlantic Canada.


[1] “Number of Accepted Time-Loss Injuries, by Jurisdiction, 1982-2011,” statistics by Association of Workers’ Compensation Board of Canada; “Number of Fatalities, by Industry and Jurisdiction, 2009-2011,” statistics by Association of Workers’ Compensation Board of Canada.

[2] AFL-CIO, “Number of OSHA by State Compared with ILO Benchmark Number of Labor Inspectors,” (2010).

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2 thoughts on “Echoes of Westray: Canada’s National Day of Mourning and the West Fertilizer Company Explosion

  1. Stan

    Excellent article – but isn’t the focus supposed to be on what has happened here in Canada? There are plenty of Canadian stories/facts you could draw on rather than American news.

  2. Lachlan MacKinnon

    Hi Stan,

    There were a few reasons that I decided to include a discussion of the recent Texas explosion alongside the Canadian example of Westray. I felt that the timing of the disaster, just a week before the Canadian Day of Mourning and the American Workers’ Memorial Day, provided a clear contemporary focus for the conversation surrounding workplace safety. This story was also dropped by the news cycle rather quickly; I think that this reflects a reluctance to engage in meaningful national discourse around these issues in both Canada and the United States.

    Had I written this article last year, I likely would have focused heavily on the Neptune Tech. disaster in Quebec. As you’ve said, Westray is certainly not the last example of Canadian companies behaving badly at the cost of workers’ health and safety. The unfortunate reality is that these stories are not unique; as I was writing this article, in fact, an explosion in a Bangladesh garment factory killed nearly 100 workers and injured many more. These issues are not simply “struggles of the past” in either Canada or the United States, and tragedies do not only occur in “developing” nations such as Bangladesh. I supposed I intended for the article to illustrate both the trans-national nature of these issues and the continued relevance of struggles for workplace health and safety in Canada.

    I appreciate the comment, thanks!

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