Despite a crackdown, workplace-related COVID deaths have accelerated in 2021

Godfrey Yeung came home from work coughing. It was Jan. 20, Ontario was in the midst of its second wave of COVID-19, and the 62-year-old postal worker from Mississauga had just completed one of several overnight shifts at the Gateway East facility. “I don’t feel so good,” his sister, Amanda Yeung Collucci, recalls him saying — so the whole family went to get tested for the virus. As suspected, Yeung tested positive, along with his daughter. His symptoms were mild at first, but he deteriorated rapidly. On Jan. 25, his wife suggested they go to a hospital. Yeung objected, insisting he’d recover soon. He died the following day. The “fun-loving” father of two was an extremely healthy individual, his sister said. “No pre-existing conditions whatsoever.”Yeung was the victim of a workplace outbreak at Canada Post’s Mississauga facility, which started in early January and spread to more than 300 employees. He was also one of more than a dozen workers who died due to COVID-19 exposure at Ontario workplaces this year — a figure rapidly outpacing the number from 2020, according to data provided by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.In total, the WSIB has logged 46 deaths that can be linked directly to workplace exposure of the virus in Ontario since the pandemic began. Over the course of 10 months last year, the board reported 28 such deaths. Now the board has reported 18 deaths in just the first three months of 2021 — a figure that amounts to nearly two-thirds of last year’s total. As the province endures a third wave which has been linked closely to COVID-19 variants and transmission within workplaces staffed by essential workers, advocates fear that the number of workplace-related COVID-19 deaths in 2021 could surpass last year’s total relatively quickly should rampant workplace outbreaks persist. The only way to prevent this, they say, is by boosting protections for essential workers with prioritized vaccination programs and paid sick leave. “Essential workers need to be prioritized. They need to be protected. What happened to my brother shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” said Yeung Collucci, who is serving her second term as city councillor for Ward 6 in Markham.As the outbreak at Canada Post’s Mississauga facility raged on, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour vowed to get tough on rule-breaking employers. On Jan. 20, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced the province would be expanding workplace safety inspections and issuing tickets to employers that did not comply with COVID-19 safety precautions. “Every business, every supervisor and every worker out there has to do more today than at any point during this pandemic to keep people safe and to be vigilant,” McNaughton said, announcing the enforcement blitz in January. “We’re going to continue targeting bad actors and we’ll continue issuing fines and close them down if we have to.”In the time since, the ministry says it has conducted 20,000 workplace inspections and issued 15,000 orders along with 470 COVID-related tickets. It has hired 100 new inspectors and focused inspections on big-box stores, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution centres and food processing. The numbers represent a marked increase from 2020, when a Toronto Star investigation found that the ministry had issued just two fines since the beginning of the pandemic — one of them to a worker.But outbreak data and filed insurance claims from 2021 show that the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace has persisted despite the enforcement attempts.Since mid-February, when Toronto Public Health began publishing a list of active workplace outbreaks, its data has shown that food-processing plants, offices, warehouses, shipping and distribution centres and construction sites have accounted for 378 outbreaks as of March 30.The Peel Region, meanwhile, has reported 164 workplace outbreaks in 2021, already surpassing the 103 outbreaks that occurred in 2020. Insurance claims filed with the WSIB for workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job are also outpacing the claims filed last year. The board reported 8,762 workplace exposure claims filed in the first three months of 2021, a figure that represents 79 per cent of last year’s total of 11,014 claims. Experts have noted that WSIB claims are typically under-reported, and some claimants may have filed for workers’ compensation in 2021 based on events that transpired the previous year, the WSIB told the Star. But Eric Tucker, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who has written extensively on safety regulation and employment standards, says the numbers are still reflective of how COVID-19 transmission has progressed in Ontario. Given the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in late December and early January, it makes sense that claims would have increased, he says. “This is in line with (COVID-19) numbers going up across the board. It’s just another indicator of the fact that we have not gotten workplace infections under control,” Tucker said. De

Despite a crackdown, workplace-related COVID deaths have accelerated in 2021

Godfrey Yeung came home from work coughing. It was Jan. 20, Ontario was in the midst of its second wave of COVID-19, and the 62-year-old postal worker from Mississauga had just completed one of several overnight shifts at the Gateway East facility.

“I don’t feel so good,” his sister, Amanda Yeung Collucci, recalls him saying — so the whole family went to get tested for the virus. As suspected, Yeung tested positive, along with his daughter.

His symptoms were mild at first, but he deteriorated rapidly. On Jan. 25, his wife suggested they go to a hospital. Yeung objected, insisting he’d recover soon.

He died the following day. The “fun-loving” father of two was an extremely healthy individual, his sister said. “No pre-existing conditions whatsoever.”

Yeung was the victim of a workplace outbreak at Canada Post’s Mississauga facility, which started in early January and spread to more than 300 employees.

He was also one of more than a dozen workers who died due to COVID-19 exposure at Ontario workplaces this year — a figure rapidly outpacing the number from 2020, according to data provided by the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.

In total, the WSIB has logged 46 deaths that can be linked directly to workplace exposure of the virus in Ontario since the pandemic began. Over the course of 10 months last year, the board reported 28 such deaths. Now the board has reported 18 deaths in just the first three months of 2021 — a figure that amounts to nearly two-thirds of last year’s total.

As the province endures a third wave which has been linked closely to COVID-19 variants and transmission within workplaces staffed by essential workers, advocates fear that the number of workplace-related COVID-19 deaths in 2021 could surpass last year’s total relatively quickly should rampant workplace outbreaks persist. The only way to prevent this, they say, is by boosting protections for essential workers with prioritized vaccination programs and paid sick leave.

“Essential workers need to be prioritized. They need to be protected. What happened to my brother shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” said Yeung Collucci, who is serving her second term as city councillor for Ward 6 in Markham.

As the outbreak at Canada Post’s Mississauga facility raged on, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour vowed to get tough on rule-breaking employers. On Jan. 20, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced the province would be expanding workplace safety inspections and issuing tickets to employers that did not comply with COVID-19 safety precautions.

“Every business, every supervisor and every worker out there has to do more today than at any point during this pandemic to keep people safe and to be vigilant,” McNaughton said, announcing the enforcement blitz in January. “We’re going to continue targeting bad actors and we’ll continue issuing fines and close them down if we have to.”

In the time since, the ministry says it has conducted 20,000 workplace inspections and issued 15,000 orders along with 470 COVID-related tickets. It has hired 100 new inspectors and focused inspections on big-box stores, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution centres and food processing.

The numbers represent a marked increase from 2020, when a Toronto Star investigation found that the ministry had issued just two fines since the beginning of the pandemic — one of them to a worker.

But outbreak data and filed insurance claims from 2021 show that the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace has persisted despite the enforcement attempts.

Since mid-February, when Toronto Public Health began publishing a list of active workplace outbreaks, its data has shown that food-processing plants, offices, warehouses, shipping and distribution centres and construction sites have accounted for 378 outbreaks as of March 30.

The Peel Region, meanwhile, has reported 164 workplace outbreaks in 2021, already surpassing the 103 outbreaks that occurred in 2020.

Insurance claims filed with the WSIB for workers who contracted COVID-19 on the job are also outpacing the claims filed last year. The board reported 8,762 workplace exposure claims filed in the first three months of 2021, a figure that represents 79 per cent of last year’s total of 11,014 claims.

Experts have noted that WSIB claims are typically under-reported, and some claimants may have filed for workers’ compensation in 2021 based on events that transpired the previous year, the WSIB told the Star.

But Eric Tucker, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who has written extensively on safety regulation and employment standards, says the numbers are still reflective of how COVID-19 transmission has progressed in Ontario.

Given the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in late December and early January, it makes sense that claims would have increased, he says.

“This is in line with (COVID-19) numbers going up across the board. It’s just another indicator of the fact that we have not gotten workplace infections under control,” Tucker said.

Deena Ladd, executive director of the Toronto-based Workers Action Centre, said the province will not curb workplace spread solely through routine inspections and tickets. Instead, it must deal with employment precarity, where workers are unable to skip work if they feel sick.

“They’re trying to put a Band-Aid on a festering wound,” Ladd said. “If you don’t have paid sick leave, workers aren’t going to stay home if they’re sick. If you’re using a huge number of temp agencies, then workers will go from workplace to workplace, spreading COVID-19. If they work part-time, they won’t have health benefits or sick days.”

Nearly three months after Yeung’s death, reality is starting to sink in for the family. “We’re only beginning to accept what happened as fact now,” said Yeung Collucci, from her home in Markham.

The tragedy prompted her to advocate vocally for essential workers’ rights as workplace outbreaks continue to take lives and devastate families.

“It’s a reminder that these aren’t just numbers,” she said. “Every recorded death is someone’s family member, friend, parent, or child — someone who needed to be protected.”

Jacob Lorinc is a Toronto-based reporter covering business for the Star. Reach him via email: jlorinc@thestar.ca

Source : Toronto Star More