At least 107 Ontario workers have died from COVID-19 they caught at work
Results from a Freedom of Information request shows that 40 workers in Toronto alone died from COVID-19 they contracted on the job.
From the start of the pandemic up until November 22, 2021, Ontario’s WSIB has paid out 107 claims for death related to COVID-19 acquired on the job, according to numbers I’ve obtained through a freedom of information request. This means that at least 107 Ontarians caught COVID-19 at work and as a result, died.
The figures exclude all claims that were in process, refused or dropped.
On their website, the WSIB reports that there were 19 death claims paid out in 2020. In a Freedom of Information request that I filed in December 2020, I was told that 23 COVID-19-related fatalities had been allowed as of December 3, 2020, and 20 had been paid out. Regardless of the exact number, that means that more than three-quarters of deaths that have been paid out by the WSIB occured in 2021.
The highest category of payouts was unsurprisingly within “Nursing and residential care facilities,” at 15 deaths. This is two more than is reported by Ontario’s ministry of health, suggesting that two of these deaths occurred within retirement residences, which are not reported by the Ministry.
Each night since April 2020, I’ve scoured media reports, GoFundMes and obituaries to identify people who died from COVID-19 that they likely got on the job. And I’m the only journalist in Canada doing this. In my research, I linked 20 deaths to long-term care and retirement residences, but that count included individuals like Maria, who worked for the Sisters of St. Joseph in London as a personal care worker. Their convent and convalescent home is not formally considered a long-term care facility. My list also includes four unnamed individuals, each whose death was reported by the Ontario Ministry of Health but for whom there was no accompanying news about the death anywhere in the media. While I was careful to not double count, did I? Or are there long-term care workers who have died whose employers didn’t make an WSIB claim, or whose claim was denied? We might never know.
“Metal transportation equipment and furniture manufacturing” was the second deadliest sector at 13 deaths. There have been very few public stories about workers in these industries dying even though it’s dominated by large, congregant workplaces that would be obvious locations of spread. I was only able to link four deaths from media reports to this category of industries.
The “Food, textiles and related manufacturing” sector was the third most deadly with 10 paid-out death claims. I have tracked seven deaths related to meatpacking (at employers Belmont Meats, Cargill, Macgregors Meat & Seafood and Maple Lodge), one to Saputo and one to FGF Brands. It’s impossible to say whether or not deaths at these facilities are represented by the 10 paid-out death claims. The Toronto Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Jennifer Yang uncovered a massive outbreak at FGF Brands in August 2020.
Both “Administration, services to buildings, dwellings and open spaces” and “Machinery, electrical equipment and miscellaneous manufacturing” had six deaths. “Non-metallic and mineral manufacturing,” “Agriculture” and “Rail, water, truck transportation and postal service” had five deaths each.
The “Schedule Two” industries, which are industries that either fall into federal jurisdiction (like communications or banking), are self-funded or are publicly-funded had 15 total deaths.
Then, there are 15 categories where the number of deaths is between one and four, but they aren’t teased out. This includes hospitals (where I’ve linked four deaths), transportation, shipping, warehouses, mines and retail.
We also now know what health units had the most deaths related to COVID-19 workplace exposure: Toronto, by far, had the highest number of workplace-related deaths at 40, followed by Peel 26, York 11 and Hamilton 5. Essex, Halton, Middlesex, Ottawa, Haldimand-Norfolk, Outside Ontario, Thunder Bay, Lambton, Niagara, Bruce, Simcoe and Durham each had between one and four deaths.
In these numbers, we can see that some deaths considered by public health units to be related to COVID-19 caught in the workplace didn’t automatically translate into a WSIB claim. For example, York Region Public Health reports that 13 York Region residents died related to workplace deaths, two residents died who were working outside of York Region, and 12 died who reside outside of York Region but who caught COVID-19 from a York Region workplace. If only 11 WSIB claims were allowed in the York Region Health Unit, that leaves between two and 14 individuals who didn’t have successful WSIB claims. It’s impossible to verify this by looking at nearby health unit data as not all units report this. Next-door Peel Region, for example, doesn’t report deaths related to outbreak clusters like workplaces or other non-long-term care and retirement facilities at all.
Ottawa has had fewer than five successful death claims paid out despite the fact that there have been nine deaths total: five deaths related to non-healthcare workplaces and four within LTC and retirement facilities, all reported by Ottawa Public Health.
Understanding which workplaces had COVID-19 outbreaks that resulted in a worker death is a near-impossible task due to uneven data collection from region to region. The WSIB death data offers a sliver of information based on successful claims, but this was only made public through freedom of information. And even then, there’s no question that these numbers are an undercount.
While the death information isn’t publicly posted, the WSIB does make public information about non-economic loss claims by payment year: in 2020, 14,580 allowable claims were made related to COVID-19. Twenty-five per cent of injuries (where benefits were paid out) were caused by “Infectious and parasitic agents” and nearly all the successful claims made for a loss of bodily function in the “body systems” category was related to COVID-19, according to the WSIB. These accounted for 26% of all “allowed lost-time claims.”
COVID-19 was reported to be the cause of the most common nature of injury, and women, aged 45-49 in non-hospital healthcare and social assistance sectors were the most impacted. Racial information is not reported.
In British Columbia, WorkSafeBC posts all claims information publicly. You can see how many claims are accepted, and from which industries they came from. There, the top three industries for COVID-19 claims were acute care, long-term care and public schools and the top three where claims were actually paid out were nursing aides and patient attendants, nurses and social services workers.
They also post incidents of death related to COVID-19 (though it’s harder to find). According to their incidents database, there have been two incidents where a worker has died after having caught COVID-19 at work: a worker at a residential social service facility and a forestry worker. Both incidents were publicly reported in the media, though so too were six other workers whose death was either probably or certainly related to a workplace exposure.
It’s outrageous that we don’t know more about COVID-19 deaths related to workplaces. How can an employer be held accountable if it’s not clear where people are dying? It would have been easy for governments to mandate that this information be made public, and the fact that they didn’t amounts to negligence. It makes it impossible to see how COVID-19 traveled across society.
Compare Canada’s lack of data with data from the Office for National Statistics from the United Kingdom that published the places of work of the 7961 people who died between the ages of 20 and 64 years in 2020. They found that almost two-thirds of the deceased were men, and that the highest number of deaths (699) occurred among men who worked in so-called elementary services: street vendors, cleaners, glass washers, hotel workers, etc. This was followed by 258 deaths within the caring, leisure and other service sectors. For women, the highest rate of death occurred among women working in the caring, leisure and service group (460) followed by process, plant and machine operatives (57).
While these deaths don’t point to proof that they caught COVID-19 on the job, when compared to incidence rates among the general population, they demonstrate that workers in these occupations were more likely to die. That’s useful information if a government wants to protect people who are most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes. In Canada, there’s no similar dataset.
In April 2020, news circulated that taxi drivers who work at Toronto’s Pearson Airport were dying from COVID-19. In total, 12 taxi drivers died, at least, though rumours that I’ve heard place that number far higher. As a block, they certainly are not included on this list (the “Air, transit, ground passenger, recreational and pipeline transportation, courier services and warehouses” sector only had fewer than five death benefits paid out). Would they even be eligible? Were all of the drivers who died working in positions where they could access WSIB benefits?
We don’t know but we do know what we don’t know, and politicians could make more information about COVID-19 at work public, if they wanted to.