Politically, there's safety in numbers. Ask an injury expert about
Alberta's rosy workplace safety rates and he'll tell you why - numbers can lie.
Corpses don't, says Dr. Louis Francescutti, with the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
"We can't have the number of injuries going down in the province as the number
of fatalities goes up," he said. "That just doesn't make sense."
go by the provincial government's statistics, that's what has happened. Alberta
Human Resources claims the number of workplace injuries has declined 30% from
1994 to 2004 thanks to a program called Work Safe Alberta. At the same time,
stats from the national Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada
show the number of fatalities rising from 74 to 124 over the same period of
time. They went up further, to 143, in 2005.
When the government
announced last fall -- and reiterated last month -- that the workplace injury
rate in Alberta had reached its lowest in a decade, they used a statistic
called "lost-time claims," which is based on lost work past the day of the
The rate of 2.6 claims per 100 full-time jobs was, indeed,
lower than any time that decade. That prompted Human Resources Minister Mike
Cardinal to claim that "The Work Safe Alberta initiative has significantly
reduced Alberta's workplace injury rate."
Other press releases from the
department claimed the program had lowered serious accidents by nearly 30% over
Statistics from the Workers Compensation Board, however,
show injuries needing medical attention have increased 15%, from the decade's
low of 92,629 in 2002 to more than 108,000 last year.
number of companies moving employers from regular duties to "modified work"
while injured rose 54% from 16,240 to 35,000 last year.
In fact, using
its stats, the government claims working in the oilpatch, with a rate of 1.1
lost-time claims per 100 jobs, is safer than being a teacher, at 2.7; a
businessman, at 1.7; or a retail worker, with a rate of 2.5.
"We see a
lot of guys coming into the emergency department on weekends after a week
working in the tar sands and they come out with cuts all over their hands that
have become infected," said Dr. Francescutti. "When you ask them why they
didn't come in earlier, they'll tell you they'd get fired.
on for as long as I can remember. Companies like to pretend everyone's OK, and
a lot of companies require near-perfect safety records from their
subcontractors." The reasoning is simple: the fewer lost-time claims companies
have, the less they pay in premiums to the Workers Compensation Board the next
Everyone in industry knows it goes on, critics agree, but no one
considers the long-term ramifications of "safe hours" stats that are bogus.
"What ends up happening when people see low numbers with respect to
accidents is that there is less of an emphasis on safety," said Dr.
Francescutti. "A lot of the safety officers for the companies are very
aggressive when a worker is hurt and will follow them to the medical aid
station or emergency department and do whatever they can do to make sure the
physician doesn't file a WCB report. "What I do when they come here a week
later is I fill out the form and let them deal with it."
Resources Minister Mike Cardinal said he will look into the issue. "It's
something I will look at further, to see if the way we keep stats is
sufficient," he said.
But Cardinal is well aware of how the system
works, says Jason Foster, with the Alberta Federation of Labour. His agency has
lobbied Cardinal's department to change its tune.
groups have been pushing hard for change, and we're just finally noticing
officials in the department starting to acknowledge that the LTC measurement
doesn't work. The problem is we can't get their political masters - in this
case, Mike Cardinal - to pay any attention."
Workers accept the system
because they don't want to risk their job and because they don't lose pay by
playing along, said Nick Stewart, president of Steelworkers Local 1207.
"We've seen many cases where a worker who has been injured is brought into work
just to staple paper so that they won't count against the injury statistics,"
he said. "And an employer can then shirk responsibility for conditions that
cause accidents by effectively claiming their workplace is safer."
Stewart could only laugh at the suggestion that the oilpatch is
Alberta's safest workplace. "Yeah, right. Talk to any oilpatch worker and find
out how many co-workers they've got who are wearing casts, or even just being
paid to sit in a bunkhouse.
"Right now, the big problem is the money.
Workplaces can just buy off the worker, period." Until workplace safety is
properly addressed, says NDP labour critic Ray Martin, the only check against
the rising tide of injuries will be the health of the economy itself.
"It is absolutely dangerous to have a perception put out there by a
minister that safety is moving in the right direction when it is not," said
Martin. "You know the old saying: statistics don't lie, but liars use