The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.
United Steelworkers will mark a milestone in occupational health and safety next month with a forum to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a wildcat strike in Elliot Lake that led to safer workplaces throughout Ontario.
The forum will mark the start of the three-week strike by about 1,000 Steelworkers in 1974 at Elliot Lake’s Denison uranium mine that resulted in the Government of Ontario appointing a royal commission headed by James Ham.
The Ham Commission on Mine Safety resulted in the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1979, the provincial law governing health and safety in the workplace, and the internal responsibility system.
The IRS is based on the principle that everyone in the workplace, workers and employers, are responsible for safety and for the safety of those around them John Perquin, a USW staff representative who works in the union’s head office in Pittsburgh, arrived in Elliot Lake about seven years after the strike that was a watershed moment in workers’ safety.
Hundreds of Steelworkers, at both Denison and Rio Algom mines, were dying of respiratory diseases such as silicosis and lung cancers, and being injured by rock falls, cave-ins and ground burns.
They were mining uranium, and had concerns about the affects of radon and radiation on their health, but were being told by the provincial government it wasn’t harmful to them, said Perquin.
But when USW members returned from a conference in Paris on uranium mining, at which provincial government officials spoke about the harmful effects of radiation based on studies on Elliot miners, workers were incensed.
“They reported it to the men and they went berserk,” said Perquin.
They set up illegal pickets April 18, 1974, and with assistance from then Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis and former Nickel Belt MPP Elie Martel, convinced the province to strike the Ham Commission.
It produced 117 recommendations that enshrined workers’ rights in law.
The irony, said Perquin, was those protections did not extend to Elliot Lake miners when the Occupational Health and Safety Act was passed in 1979. That is because uranium mining fell under the jurisdiction of the federal government.
It would be 1984 before the federal and provincial governments, mining companies and union worked out a deal so uranium miners were protected by the OHSA.
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