Workers’ Compensation at BC Canneries by Thomas van Leeuwen

In the year 1953 Mr. Anthony Calder was an employee at Sunnyside Cannery. More than likely it was an ordinary day of work as he climbed into a boat. While going about his tasks a neighbouring boat exploded unexpectedly and inflicted serious burns to both his hands and face.  Calder was unable to work for the following sixteen workdays. His medical expenses were paid for yet he received no wage compensation from the Cannery. Calder is one of the many examples that illustrate the variety of workplace hazards in canneries. The information known about Calder was retrieved from Workers Compensation records from Sunnyside Cannery. Similarly, there are compensation records dated in the 1920s from the first cannery on the Skeena Inlet known as Inverness Cannery. The accumulation of records from Skeena canneries dated in the 1920s, 50s and 60s provide valuable insight into the working conditions and hazards in canneries. These records document back pain, infections, loss of fingers, and many more, all which were conditions experienced in the North Pacific Cannery. Cecily Moore, a long-time employee of the NPC beginning in 1982 and one of the most experienced cannery workers, asserts that safer workplace conditions increased through the years as employers became progressively concerned about safety.

In relation to the effects of unsafe workplace conditions the Workers Compensation Act, referred to as the WCA, and the Workers Compensation Board, known as WCB, in British Columbia was put into effect in 1917. Therefore compensation documents from the 1920s provide some of the earliest documentation of workplace injuries and hazards both systematically and uniformly. Examining safer workplaces is a progressive history where workplace conditions improved over time. The question is not if workplace conditions did improve, since oral testimonies, documentation and modern safety regulations are self-evident. Rather, what were, or are, the primary motivations for a safer workplace? The primary motivations argued in a WCB newsletter and a Royal Commission, by and large, stem from a heavy burden on the court system concerning compensation and in part the financial loss experienced predominantly by employees. Cumbersome courts alongside a portion of unsatisfied working class, in turn, necessitate or provide incentive for intervening through the establishment of regulations and laws. Finally, legislation and increased regulation creates an economic motif for businesses to design and enforce safer workplaces. In short, overwhelmed courts prompt the establishment of the WCA which allows largely economic factors to influence safer workplace conditions.

Heavy burdens on courts regarding lawsuits directed by employee(s) to employer(s) put ample pressure on the government to create laws and regulation. Before the introduction of the WCA an employees’ only means of compensation was through litigation. Although this narrative is retrieved from a Workers Compensation newsletter from the 60s the history concurs with secondary sources. Overburdened courts were the primary reason for the creation of Workers Compensation, yet there were also social factors. Predominantly, if employees sued employers the defendant would accuse the employee of either negligence, fault, or that the employee knew the risks before participating in the activity. As argued by a Royal Commission in 1998, the result was that law and implications of law allowed for employees to be held at fault for incidents that one may or may not have been directly at fault. The Workers Compensation bulletin, narrating their own history, suggests that employees were more than often not directly at fault and that the onus should be on employers. Retrospectively, with considerations of the lack of systematic safety regulations along with an increasing amount of technological advancements, the narrative of employees being often not at fault is genuine. The extent in which social dissatisfactions had influenced the creation of the WCA separate from the problem of overwhelmed courts is debatable.  What is clear is that employees often failed to receive compensation through litigation and that the courts were unable to process the influx of employee to employer lawsuits. These factors, noted in the Royal Commission and WCB Bulletin,  influenced the creation of the WCA which served to improve workplace conditions. The creation of the Act systematized employee injury documentation and was an economic motif for employers to enforce a safer workplace, since they could no longer exploit the common law as before.

Largely for economic reasons employers would be willing to enforce safer working conditions. For example, several decades later after the establishment of Workers Compensation Calder did not receive any compensation for his injuries. Documentation reveals allegedly that neither he nor the Cannery was at fault. Consequently, and no fault of his own, Calder endured sixteen days off work with no pay. With lasting scars, and no compensation, Calder would have made less income in that year than others prior. Although the records are not clear, he may have also had a family to support of his own. Logically, the rise of Workers Compensation appears to have no practical results for him. However, the WCA led to an arrangement where companies paid for medical costs. Beneficially, Calder’s medical expenses were covered. Therefore, Workers Compensation provided an economic incentive for canneries and other industries alike to enforce precautionary measures and safety regulations. Even if compensation was not always successful, the WCB by the 1920s was enforcing safer workplace measures combatting poor working conditions. A letter from 1920 documents an injury where employee Mathew Feak had a finger injured in the gear of a winch. Feak’s other circumstances are not clear, and the letter does not address compensation. Instead, the company is alerted that under safety regulations the gears must be secured with a guard. In particular, the letter mentions Feak’s crushed finger and to, “kindly have your engineer guard these gears”. Since many documented reports were finger injuries the apparent unempathetic response of WCB is realistic. Moreover, the nature of the letter speaks to the awareness of poor working conditions in the 1920s. WCB, likewise, sent out letters requiring first aid to be available on site in the case that the employees were too far from any hospital. The bills either in first aid or hospital expenses were paid by the companies and thus the incentive was to prevent injuries and save on expenditure.

Although it was unfortunate that Calder spent sixteen days unpaid, unwell, and likely suffered a significant income loss, he was fortunate in the sense that his medical expenses were covered. Canneries, like many workplaces, were unsafe and poorly regulated. Yet progression of safer working conditions is evident as Moore claimed. Calder benefited more than others before him. The rise of Workers Compensation, due to burdened courts and considerable employee dissatisfaction, allowed for systematic documentation of injuries. Injuries that cost companies money and therefore needed to be avoided. Therefore law, not only by regulation but also by economic incentives, allowed Cannery workplaces, such as North Pacific, to become safer workplaces.


                                                                    Works Cited

Cecily Moore, questioned on safety progressions at NPC, August 31, 2017.

Chaklader, Anjan. “History of Workers’ Compensation in BC A Report to The Royal Commission on Workers’ Compensation in BC.” WorkSafeBC. Accessed September 5, 2017. ​

First Aid Report by Sunnyside Cannery to Workers Compensation Board, Jun 9, 1953, in “Safety”, MS 2 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Letter from Workers Compensation Board to J.H. Todd & Sons, May 5, 1920, in “WCB”, MS 15 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Letter from Workers Compensation Board to J.H. Todd & Sons, Aug 3, 1920, in “WCB”, MS 15 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Letter from Workers Compensation Board to J.H. Todd & Sons, Nov 1, 1920, in “WCB”, MS 15 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Workmen’s Compensation Board News Bulletin, March, 1960, in “Safety”, MS 2 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.

Workmen’s Compensation Board News Bulletin, November, 1960, in “Safety”, MS 2 box, North Pacific Cannery Archives, Port Edward, BC.