The strike that saved lives [Elliot Lake] – by Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco (CIM Magazine – June-July 2014)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Elliot Lake wildcat walkout

Ontario government representatives 40 years ago presented research linking radiation to lung cancer at a conference in Paris, France. In the audience were several members of the United Steelworkers of America (USW), whose organization had been fighting the mining industry and the Ontario government for improved health and safety at the Denison and Rio Algom uranium mines in Elliot Lake, Ontario. In addition to a high incidence of injuries, hundreds of miners were ill or dying from silicosis and lung cancer, which the union believed was caused by silica dust.

The union representatives were shocked to discover the government had found there was another cause behind the high rates of lung cancer – radiation – and had not bothered to inform miners or to take any action to protect them. The USW members shared the news with their co-workers back in Elliot Lake, and this proved to be the last straw. On April 18, 1974, about 1,000 miners from Denison went on a three-week wildcat strike.

“I think the conference, combined with the general dissatisfaction with the occupational health and safety regulations and laws in the province at that time, caused the strike,” says Fergus Kerr, now vice-president of operations at Global Atomic Fuels Corp., who joined Denison in 1977 and became its general manager a decade later.

The strike drew the attention of the media, the public and Ontario’s politicians. Mining health and safety suddenly became a hot-button issue.

The response from mining companies is remembered differently, depending on who you speak to. Some recall an industry that embraced change while others are less positive.

“Just around that time, the uranium market improved dramatically,” says Kerr. “So there was pressure from politicians at both a federal and provincial level and pressure from the unions, and the industry realized if they were going to expand their operations, they better do it right. There was a combination of events and circumstances that came together at that time.”

Leo Gerard, USW’s current international president, moved to Elliot Lake shortly after joining the union in 1977, and he sees it slightly differently: “[The mining companies] were brought in kicking and screaming. Eventually, when it became inevitable that there would be changes, toward the end, they came to understand it had to be resolved.”

The birth of modern health and safety regulations

Despite the controversy, there is universal agreement that then Premier William Davis’s decision to launch a royal commission to investigate health and safety in mines was one of the best things to have happened to the province’s mining sector. Chaired by engineering professor James Ham, the Ham Commission came back in 1975 with more than 100 recommendations. This report became the bedrock of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), which came into force in the fall of 1979 not just for mining but across all industries.

Vic Pakalnis, now president and CEO of the Mining Innovation Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation, who worked for 30 years in occupational health and safety for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, describes Ham as the father of occupational health and safety in Canada. “Ham coined the concept of an ‘Internal Responsibility System,’” says Pakalnis, “which is the foundation of the culture of safety we have in the mining industry as well as all of its health and safety ­regulations.”

The OHSA, known as the “green book,” became a trend-setter, Kerr says. It is used by mining operations around the world as a best-in-class guide for worker health and safety to this day.

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