With Wildfires Due to Return it’s Time to Talk About Health and Safety

By Josee-Anne Spirito, PSAC North Regional Executive Vice President

We have been through a lot in the North over the last few years. Workers have had to risk their health and safety, sometimes daily, because of hazards that were hard to control.  

I was working on the front line during the pandemic in health care and at that time there were a lot of situations where I feared for the health of our members. The things we saw and experienced as workers are not something any worker should ever have to face.

But far from being the exception, dangerous situations on the worksite are quickly becoming a common occurrence that workers face in the North.  

Over the last few years many of us are all too familiar with leaving the front door, saying goodbye to those we call friends and family, and seeing the concern on their face for our safety because they know the situations we are facing are high risk. We remember those phone calls with loved ones, where we have trouble talking about our day, because we don’t want them to worry about us. But we must talk about health and safety, now more than ever.

The North is preparing for another busy forest fire season, and fire conditions this year across the country are expected to be as dangerous as last year, if not worse. 

We have firefighters who fear for their health and safety. They know that they will face unsafe working conditions as part of their job this summer. It’s a job they do so that we remain safe and a job they do to protect the communities we call home. 

Last year in the North we evacuated a capital city for the first time in Canadian history. Tens of thousands of people across the country were forced to leave their homes and to find shelter in neighboring towns and cities – in other provinces and territories.

So many young workers and firefighters last year, some of whom not long ago graduated from highschool, saw communities in need and acted. What workers achieved in keeping so many of us safe was unprecedented. It was proof that together as workers we are capable of great things and of overcoming great obstacles. We must honour that bravery by doing everything we can to keep workers safe.

Yes, there are many hazards that can be hard to control, and we have faced those daily in recent years in the North. But health and safety is also about the hazards that we can control and those daily actions that can make a big difference for the health and safety of workers. 

Creating and maintaining a culture of safety in our workplaces is easier said than done. Health and safety issues can vary widely among workspaces and are not just issues of physical safety, but of mental health too. It is about more than simply writing out rules or best practices but about mutual support and care. It is about active listening and continuous improvement. 

Health and safety is about constant practice and attention to detail, it is about clear communication, it is about employers respecting the rights of workers to environments that are welcoming and inclusive. 

Sadly, we too often have to fight uphill battles with employers on health and safety issues. This is often the case when it comes to mental health in particular. A workspace should be a place that is welcoming to those who work there and inclusive, and these factors of a good work environment should not be treated as secondary requirements by employers. But too frequently that is what we encounter. 

Creating a culture of safety must mean exactly that: Nurturing a dynamic between workers, unions, and employers in which we each encourage each other to share and address concerns. 

Together we can make sure workers are prepared for the challenges we have yet to face. The PSAC North Health and Safety conference last weekend was a demonstration of a renewed commitment to health and safety in the North for all workers.

On April 28 we will also be honoring the lives of all workers who have lost their lives over the last year or have been injured on the job as part of our national day of mourning. We encourage readers to participate in local events.

[There are Day of Mourning events to attend in the YukonNorthwest Territories, and Nunavut.]