The right to safety at work

In the 1960’s exploitation of workers – especially immigrants – was still widespread. Many barely earned enough to support their families, lived in fear of deportation, and were forced to work in very unsafe working conditions. Many, unable to speak English, were unaware of any rights they did have.

On March 17, 1960, five Italian immigrant workers, Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Battista Carriglio, Giovanni Fusillo, Alessandro and Guido Mantella, climbed 35 feet underground to continue their work on a tunnel at Hogg’s Hollow, under the Don River near Old York Mills Road and Yonge Street in Toronto.

The tunnel was just six feet in diameter, and the men had to crawl underneath a 36 inch water main running through it to pass each other. They hadn’t been equipped with hard hats or flashlights.

When a fire broke out, they were trapped, unable to see their way out, blocked anyway by smoldering cables on one side and a cement tunnel support wall on the other. Panicked rescue workers shut down air to the tunnel, causing a cave-in, and as compression was lost, the men suffered the torture of nitrogen bubbling up in their bloodstreams. The floor hadn’t been properly sealed with cement, so when water was finally poured in to fight the fire, a torrential flood of mud buried the men alive. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation from inhaling smoke, sand and water.

The tragedy became the catalyst for reforms in occupational health and safety. Unions led the fight to get the Ontario government to take workplace health and safety seriously, leading to the passing of the Industrial Safety Act.

The act was the foundation of the Canada Labour (Safety) Code that passed later that decade. It clearly set out laws and regulations for the safety of workers in Canada.

Saskatchewan then took this further passing the Occupational Health Act, considered the first legislation of its kind in North America.

The act is still in existence today, making health and safety the joint responsibility of management and workers. Unions fought hard to give Canadians three important areas of power: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about hazards in the workplace and the right to participate in health and safety discussions. And unions fight hard every day to keep forcing employers to fulfill their obligations to keep workers safe.