“We need a revolution in public health and workplace safety to keep workers safe from COVID,” says AFL – AFL

Third Day of Mourning under the shadow of the pandemic can be the last if we take action to make indoor environments safer

CALGARY – Given the obvious failure of the “let it rip” approach to COVID, Canada needs a “revolution in public health and workplace safety aimed at actually keeping people safe in indoor spaces and workplaces.”

That was the message delivered by Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, on the Day of Mourning, which is a day set aside each year to remember workers who have lost their lives as a result of injuries or exposure to hazards at work.

“Despite all the government rhetoric about getting ‘back to normal’ and ‘learning to live with it,’ COVID continues to be a major health hazard for Albertans, especially in indoor environments, including workplaces,” says McGowan.

“We simply can’t normalize an average of nine people dying each day, which is the current average of daily COVID deaths in Alberta right now. We also can’t accept having more than 1,000 people in hospital with COVID at all times, which has been the case for months. Nor can we continue to ignore the fact that COVID is not just another respiratory infection but, rather, a multi-system disease that can cause permanent damage to internal organs, including the lungs, heart, liver and brain. In the same way that we shouldn’t accept current high rates of death, we also shouldn’t accept the high and growing rates of disability that will come our way should we continue to downplay the seriousness of COVID.”

McGowan says governments in Canada and around the world have irresponsibly and inaccurately framed the issue of COVID policy as a choice between lockdowns and “freedom.” In reality, there is a wide range of actions that can be taken to reduce the transmission of viruses that don’t involve lockdowns.

“We in the labour movement pioneered an approach to workplace health and safety that we think can and should be applied to the COVID crisis,” says McGowan. “It’s called the ‘hierarchy of controls’ and it lays out steps that should be followed to limit hazards in the workplace. It starts by asking: can the hazard be eliminated from the work environment? If it can, great. But if it can’t, the hierarchy of controls approach then goes on to ask ‘can the hazard by mitigated through engineering interventions or by administrative rules?’ Finally, it makes a commitment to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers to augment the engineering and administrative controls.”

McGowan says the “hierarchy of controls” approach is clearly superior to the “let it rip” approach and is, in fact, the best way to “learn to live with COVID.”

What’s needed, McGowan says, is for governments to embrace the ‘hierarchy of controls’ approach in the context of COVID and support it through legislation, regulation, communication and enforcement. Here’s a specific example of how it could work:

  • Paid sick leave for all workers. (Elimination of hazard from workplace)
  • Mandatory 10-day isolation for people who test positive (Elimination of hazard from workplace)
  • New mandatory standards for ventilation and indoor air filtration (Engineering controls)
  • Rules for physical distancing and for mandatory masking and/or vaccine passports when case rates spike (Administrative controls)
  • Provision of N-95 masks to all workers in indoor work environments (PPE)
  • All supported by a return to mass testing and tracing

“The ‘let it rip’ approach is a dead end and amounts to a forced mass infection policy,” says McGowan. “The hierarchy of controls approach, on the other hand, is a win-win-win scenario. It’s a win for workers and citizens because it would dramatically reduce their chances of getting a disease that could kill them or leave them disabled. It’s a win for employers, because it would dramatically reduce the number of days lost to sickness and, hence, increase productivity. And it’s a win for society because it gives us a better chance of stopping the endless cycle of pandemic waves.”

McGowan acknowledges that the political pendulum has swung away from pandemic protections, but he says the obvious failure of the current government’s approach means it will likely swing back.

“Yes, the anti-vax and anti-mask crowd is currently driving the bus, especially with the Kenney government,” concludes McGowan. “But that doesn’t mean they’re right. Besides, progress on important policy initiatives often takes time; sometimes years. That was the case with Medicare. It was the case with child care. And, it’ll probably be the case for the campaign to improve indoor air-quality in the context of COVID. But that won’t stop us. It never has. We’re going to make this an issue in the next election and beyond. We’re in this for the long haul.”

NOTE: McGowan will address these topics today in a speech to a virtual Day of Mourning event organized by the Calgary and District Labour Council (CDLC).


Ramona Franson
Director of Communications, AFL