Twenty-five years ago, May 9, 1992, the Westray Coal Mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, blew up in a huge gas and coal dust explosion. Twenty-six miners, the entire shift underground at the time, were killed. The bodies of 15 miners were recovered. The remains of the other eleven are still underground.

How far have we travelled since then?  Before we consider that question, it’s worth remembering what had happened in the days leading to that Saturday morning, not so long ago.

In September of 1991, a new coal mine, promising the industrial salvation of Northern Nova Scotia, was propelled into production, supported by politicians at the provincial and federal levels. Promoters glossed over the challenges of mining the Pictou Coalfield; the unstable ground conditions, the high methane content of the coal, the depth of the seam.

Delays in tunnel development and in the securing of financing created urgent pressure to produce when the mine opened, pressure which the Public Inquiry into the explosion found militated against adequate mine planning and safety. Only a third of the miners who were recruited had any coal mining experience. Training, especially safety training, was cursory at best. There was no Union to represent the collective interests of the miners. One organizing drive, led by a Union based in the rival Cape Breton coal field, failed. A second organizing campaign was underway when the mine exploded. Miners who complained about conditions in the mine were ignored and in some cases threatened with termination.

Layered over these factors was a government regulatory system that was unable or unwilling to rein in the mine operators. According to the Inquiry, the Department of Natural Resources failed to ensure the Company’s mine plans were safe. Inspectors from the Department of Labour deferred to Company management on safety issues and neglected their most basic, responsibilities. A joint safety committee at the mine languished without the support of mine inspectors.

The final elements of the tragedy were added in the weeks immediately preceding the explosion. A large section of the mine had to be abandoned when the roof started to fail. It was separated from the rest of the workings by plywood and plastic barriers that leaked a steady stream of methane gas into the operating sections of the mine. Coal dust built up throughout the mine as the operators ignored Department of Labour orders to clean it up.

Around 5:30 in the morning on May the 9th, a spark, most likely from one of the mining machines working at the coal face, ignited the gas seeping from the abandoned section. It burned along the roof of the tunnel in a rolling flame. The miners working there fell as they ran from the coal face and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The methane fire kicked up clouds of coal dust and triggered a devastating coal dust explosion that destroyed the rest of the mine and killed the remaining miners.

After that morning, the word “Westray” became a synonym for reckless and negligent corporate behaviour, and “no more Westrays” a call for robust occupational health and safety regimes. But how far have we really come?

Nova Scotia has rewritten its occupational health and safety laws to clarify the responsibilities of all workplace stakeholders. There is a professional cadre of safety officers whose job is to enforce safety standards. Safety officers can issue on the spot, “administrative penalties”, when they find violations. Frustration with the ability of the owners and top managers of Westray to escape accountability for the disaster led directly to Bill C-45, the “Westray Bill”, the amendment to the Criminal Code that imposed legal duties on those who direct the work of others and criminal liability for corporations and their representatives.

Still, workplace fatalities per capita in Nova Scotia remain high. Between 20 and 30 employees are killed by their work every year. That’s the rough equivalent of an underground shift at Westray.  A fatality inquiry into the death of a provincial ferry worker, 10 years after the Westray Inquiry, identified systemic weaknesses in the identification of workplace hazards that still haven’t been addressed. The province’s Occupational Health and Safety Division is, at times, too eager to leave safety issues to parties in the workplace, rather than intervening directly, ignoring a power dynamic that inevitably favours employers.

As the anniversary of the explosion approaches, no one can say with confidence that there will be no more Westrays in Nova Scotia.