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Jim Sinclair, president of B.C. Federation of Labour, is photographed at his office in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, November 22, 2012.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Jim Sinclair will end his 15-year reign as the province's top labour leader next week. And although it likely irritated some of the people who paid his salary over the years, his most important work was often on behalf of non-union workers.

Mr. Sinclair vividly recalls the moment he became fixated on workplace safety. He was standing in a fish packing plant in Richmond in 1982, trying to understand a horrendous workplace accident.

"It changed my view of the world."

Scott Patterson, 20 years old at the time, was working in the packing plant's ice house when he slipped into the path of an ice auger. The grinding blades took off his legs before he could be rescued.

Mr. Sinclair was a reporter for the newspaper of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union. He was not a fisherman, but having been fired from the Nelson Daily News, he was grateful to find a newspaper that would hire him.

He showed up at the packing plant two days after Mr. Patterson's accident, and was shown that a protective grate that was supposed to cover the blades had been removed. He learned this was not an isolated incident – it was more efficient, and thus cheaper, to operate the augers without safety grates.

The fishing industry is dangerous, and "fishermen died every year," Mr. Sinclair said in an interview as he prepares to turn over the reins to a new leader on Nov. 27. " Maybe it was because I was an outsider. I thought, 'Everything is wrong here.'"

He organized a union campaign and within 18 months, fish-packing plants up and down the coast were forced to change. Grates were permanently bolted down and a safety director for the industry was established.

Mr. Sinclair went on to lead the now-defunct fishermen's union, and later, the BC Federation of Labour. He has done his tour of duty on the picket lines, and has intervened to help settle high-stakes labour disputes in the public sector. But his most passionate campaigns have been like the one he shaped around Mr. Patterson, who became a top Paralympic athlete.

Often, those safety campaigns focused on vulnerable, non-union workers.

When 24-year-old gas station attendant Grant De Patie was dragged to his death in 2005 trying to stop someone from driving off without paying, a campaign by Mr. Sinclair prompted a blitz of safety inspections. Of the 366 gas stations that were checked, almost all failed. The provincial government brought in Grant's Law, which imposed a mandatory prepayment system at service stations in urban areas to protect late-night workers.

Stephen Von Sychowski was an organizer on that campaign. "We need to represent all workers. There are people out there who don't see the value of that, but that is Jim's legacy and I hope it continues."

Mr. Sinclair led a fight for safety of farm workers after three women were killed in an unsafe passenger van on their way to work at a Chilliwack nursery in 2007. Three days after the accident, he went to the scene and watched as a supervisor ordered farm workers into another over-crowded van. "There was no fear of consequences," he recalled. The BC Fed and the victims' families pushed for change, and again inspections were boosted. Forty-five per cent of the transport vans were taken off the road.

In 2008, when Judy Darcy, then president of the Hospital Employees' Union, heard that three workers died in an accident at a mushroom farm in Langley, she phoned Mr. Sinclair. "He was out there within an hour. He threw every fibre of his being into these situations," said Ms. Darcy, now MLA for New Westminster.

Mr. Sinclair met with the families and campaigned for tougher laws against negligent employers. Ms. Darcy said his priorities were not always universally shared in the labour movement. "Jim was always crystal-clear, whether they were unionized or not, he would pour himself into health and safety for workers."

Mr. Sinclair, now 60, would likely have faced a leadership challenge at a convention this month. A changing of the guard is taking place in Canada's labour movement, and many of the faces at the table today were not there when he started. "You don't want to overstay your welcome," he said.

Although union membership across Canada has declined as a share of the work force, Mr. Sinclair said he leaves the BC Fed in a healthy place. "The federation is relevant," he said. "It's been seen to be a legitimate part of the debate to advocate for workers, not just for workers with a union card in their pocket."