SCOTT HARRIS / [email protected]
The number of workplace fatalities in the province
climbed 24 per cent in 2007, making it the deadliest year for Alberta workers
The 154 workplace deaths accepted by the Workers
Compensation Board last year, up from 124 in 2006, occurred at the same
time as the lost-time claim rate, which the province uses to measure workplace
injuries, continued the downward trend it has followed since 2000, dropping 6.7
per cent compared to 2006.
Its a mix of good and bad news that has Barrie
Harrison, a spokesperson with Alberta Employment and Immigration, feeling
frustrated with what hes seeing.
To know that our fatality rate has gone up from
the year prior is disheartening for sure, he admits. The fact is
that the number of injuries continues to go down in this province and
thats going to be part of longer-term trend, but still, the number of
fatalities of 154 is just way too many and we need to continue to step up our
efforts to make our workplaces safer.
Of the 154 fatalities recorded, 47 were the result of
workplace incidents, 44 were motor vehicle accidents and 63 were the result of
deaths from occupational disease.
Harrison says he is all to familiar with the tragic
circumstances surrounding the workplace deaths.
You know, I carry what we call the duty
phone that rings every time theres a workplace fatality and when I
hear about the circumstances surrounding these fatalities you give your head a
shake. And you know that every one of these fatalities is absolutely
preventable, he says.
Were not going to sit here as a government
and look through rose-coloured glasses and suggest that things are good if
theyre not and right now were not happy with these
Harrison says part of the explanation for the increase
in fatalities is that there are more workers in the province, but he admits
that even when the growth in the workforce is factored in there hasnt
been any significant change in the fatality rate for more than a decade.
Kevin Flaherty, executive director of the Alberta
Workers Health Centre, a not-for-profit society that focusses on
workplace health and safety, says that means that Alberta workplaces just
arent getting safer.
We should be able to measure success in [reducing
fatalities] and its not success if were looking at a flat line for
the fatality rate. We should not be happy with the fact that we have not
improved the health and safety of Albertas workplaces over the last 15 to
Unlike Employment Minister Hector Goudreau, who was
quoted last week as saying we really dont know why fatalities
are going up while the lost-time claim rate is going down, Flaherty says
theres a simple explanation for the seeming contradiction.
The basic reason is that the lost time claim rate
is artificially contrived. For example, in order to have a claim and to be
recognized as a claim, someone has to file that claim, he explains.
And for the past 15 years the WCB has, in collaboration with the
province, set up a series of mechanisms that discourage people from filing
claims. So theres a whole variety of those, but one of those is the whole
People if they file a WCB claim now have a lot
of chance that theyll just be put back to work on modified duties, so a
lot of times they dont even bother filing a claim.
Another piece is what a lot of workers call
scared safe, the threat of drug testing, whether youre guilty
or not, whether youre a drug user or notbecause companies are
allowed to test anybody who might be associated with a health and safety
incident. So you might be one of 10 workers working in an area where a minor
accident happens and someone gets a minor injury. Well, if everyone in that
room is going to get drug tested, even if youre totally innocent why
would you say anything?
Harrison concedes that the lost-time claim rate has been
criticized in the past, which is why the province has introduced a new
measurethe disabling injury claim rate, which includes both injuries
requiring time off work and injuries that allowed the worker to perform
modified duties without missing workto more accurately illustrate what is
happening in Alberta workplaces.
There was a time when these types of injuries
werent counted, but we believe they should be counted, even if [the
worker] didnt lose any time. So, the nice thing about these statistics is
that even though they are countedand certainly there is more modified
work than ever going on and as you see they did go up by 2.7 per cent last
yearat least the overall disabling claim continued to go down and
thats a good sign.
But Flaherty argues that even with the new measures, too
much emphasis is put on the lost-time claim rate.
I give them credit, they finally stopped using the
lost-time claim rate by itself, but for the most part they still use it as the
main measurement and they still reward companies for driving that down. And you
can drive that down by just having people not file claims, period. Counting the
bodies on a long term basis is a better indication of the health and safety of
workplaces than the lost-time claim rate, for sure.
But on the other hand its that same old
thing: what are we counting? Were only counting the people as defined by
Workers Comp, so its underestimated. Just workplace-related cancers alone
would push fatalities over 500 a year in Alberta. So there needs to be a much
better, more serious look at all those statistics.
Harrison says that the government continues to work on
improving workplace safety. He points to three new e-learning courses that are
being launched, along with plans to step up government education and awareness
programs, especially those aimed at young workers.
Probably bigger than all that is our continued
work with the safety associations and with labour groups and with industry
because its not just governments responsibility to make our
workplaces safer, he says. Our biggest priority is to make the laws
and to make sure that those laws are being followed, and thats why we
have our officers who do conduct over 13 000 inspections annually.
He also points to the strong messages that are being
sent to employers who ignore health and safety through increased fines for
violations. In the first three months of 2008, fines against seven companies
totalling over $1.9 million have already surpassed the $1.72 million in fines
handed out in all of 2007.
But Flaherty says there needs to be much more
sustained effort and resources if the province truly wants to improve
workplace health and safety.
The unannounced spot inspections and enforcement
need to be massively increased. There has to be a real threat in the workplace
that someone is going to actually pop in the door and see how poor the health
and safety is. And Im not just talking about are the workers wearing
their hearing protection, its more like how is the work structured, how
safe are the work processes?
Flaherty argues that any initiatives are bound to fail
unless they involve those most impacted by poor workplace health and
Theres not one way workplaces are going to
be made safer, theres a whole bunch of ways, including giving workers
more rights on the job.
Alberta still doesnt have joint
occupational health and safety committee legislation. In Alberta, workers are
still not a legislated, active part of health and safety. The attitude still
tends to be, Well tell you whats good for you and how to do
the job safely and you just go and do it. So youre cutting out the
key players in the whole health and safety equation. All workers are told is to
work safe but they have very few channels to actually be involved in actually
making the workplaces safer.