Steven Bittle (left) and Jasmine Hébert, study authors. Photo: Sarah Crookall.
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Cancer and disease often escape official work-related death statistics

A U of O study, published in the Journal of Canadian Labour Studies, finds work-related deaths are under-reported by 10–13 times. According to an article published in November, cancer and disease are the leading causes.

“We have a much greater chance of being sickened or killed by a major corporation than traditional street crime,” said Steven Bittle, study author and U of O professor of criminology.

The study, titled, “Work-Related Deaths in Canada,” analyzed reports of workplace deaths, using a combination of government, academic, and alternative data sources. With a goal of redefining workplace fatalities, the study suggests that current definitions are too narrow.

“In Canada, for a fatality to be counted in the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada’s (AWCBC) data it must be ‘founded,’ meaning it must result ‘from a work-related incident’ … accepted for compensation,”  the study reads.

Currently, the AWCBC’s data suggests 1,000 annual deaths in Canada are work-related. Whereas Bittle’s research suggests 10,000–13,000 deaths are the actual numbers, considering alternative data and unreported cases.

Bittle says many deaths are investigated as accidents instead of crimes, which may be because of stereotypes.

When we look at the cases when we see that people are killed at work, there’s evidence to suggest that many of them involve some kind of criminal negligence,” he said.

“Most often those are dealt with through non-criminal rules and laws—administrative laws, or regulatory laws,” Bittle added.

According to this research, work-related fatalities double homicide statistics. According to data from Statistics Canada, 660 people died of homicide in 2017—that’s 640 fewer deaths estimated in the recent work-related death study.

Of the fatalities studied, cancer and disease escape statistics most often. Employees are exposed to “dusts, gasses, fumes and vapours at work.” However, establishing a link between cancer and work environments is challenging, says Bittle.

“There’s research that’s starting to show us that when it comes to certain substances they do have a work component,” he said. “A great example of this is asbestos. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos.”

When we look at the cases when we see that people are killed at work—there’s evidence to suggest that many of them involve some kind of criminal negligence,

—Steven Bittle, study author and U of O professor of criminology.

The article estimates as many as 8,939 cancer deaths may be work-related.

Additionally, it states work-related suicides are on the rise because of unmanageable workloads, harassment, low or unchanging wages, and the “erosion of workers’ rights and protections.”

The study suggests 400 work-related suicides occur each year.

Of all the topics that we covered, I think (work-related suicide is) an area that’s extremely understudied and one that demands more attention.”

Examining other factors—such as heart disease, agriculture incidents, non-working victims, and commuting—the study notes additional causes of work-related deaths are not always considered.

Bittle’s team proposes that 466 commuting deaths are work-related. The study states, “these commuters are at the greatest risk of driving while fatigued and in dangerous conditions, in comparison with those who work normal business hours.”

The study found deaths related to work often escape statistics because of a high burden of proof, rejected compensation claims, and are uncounted by police.

To address current data-collection limitations, the study suggests all levels of government create more reliable ways of tracking fatalities at work. It concludes that initiatives should start by “seeking insight from various researchers and union/labour groups.”

According to Bittle, the current process “should be better regulated and controlled so that people do not die just trying to make a living.”

Moving forward, the researchers hope to gather more data on work-related deaths, and further explore work-related suicides.

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