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Working wounded. Injured employees routinely placed on
'modified work' duties to protect safety records, says officialhttp://www.edmontonsun.com/News/Canada/2006/09/11/pf-1825175.html
By JEREMY LOOME, EDMONTON SUN
One day workers stand around in shock because someone was
hurt on the job. In some cases, the injured person makes an appearance on the
jobsite the next day, or is sent for training, so the company can maintain a
good safety record.
When "Dave" showed up for work, no one was surprised by his
bandages - just the fact he was there at all.
A day earlier Dave - a pseudonym for a city man - had been
working with liquid petroleum gas. The LPG was in a pressurized container, and
it blew. Dave was soaked, and a second later the gas ignited. Co-workers
watched Dave run around as a fireball before managing to smother the
"And here it is a day later and he's back at work, covered
in bandages. He'd been told by our safety person that we were almost at (a
target for safe hours worked), and if he didn't come in, he'd be to blame,"
says a co-worker. "He's got second-degree burns all over his hands and his
neck, but he's at work. It was ridiculous."
Dave spent the next week "training" and didn't miss more
than a couple of hours of work. The Sun outlined yesterday how the provincial
government has advertised Alberta workplaces as the safest in a decade by using
lost-time statistics, even as the number of accidents has risen.
"It's all sleight-of-hand," says a senior government
official, requesting anonymity to protect his job. "Modified work is a good
philosophy, which is to keep someone working and productive. But it's been
What's more, says the official, the Klein government is well
aware employees are routinely kept on the job when they should be off work or
even hospitalized. "It's just craziness. You look at these companies that claim
a million, two million safe hours and it's nearly all coming at the expense of
proper care for their employees."
It will probably take a high-profile lawsuit involving a
worker's death to correct the issue, said the official.
"All the companies do is move the goalposts for how they
define what is a proper first aid call, what should qualify for modified work.
Industrial contractors and subcontractors are the biggest to move people
around, because a lot of their salaries are based on their safety
In fact, most construction agreements include sterling
safety-hour and WCB reports as stipulations for winning the bid in the first
place. The most commonly used, a generic contract offered by the Alberta
Construction Association, includes such safety stipulations.
"All of this money - the contracts, the WCB claims, the WCB
premiums, the bonuses for staff for keeping lost-time claims down - all of it
has corrupted the system. And the only person paying for it is the guy who's
The government has known about the problems for years
without addressing it, said the senior official.
"More and more people are asking how lost-time claims can be
going down when fatalities are going up, and my attitude is that if you sweep
something under the rug for long enough, eventually somebody trips over the
rug. It has become production over people here - in some of the cases it's as
simple as calling it a case of murder by employment."
The Workers' Compensation Board helped develop the manual
that outlines how to place staff on modified duties and encourages the
practice, said Jason Foster, with the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"It's an officially recognized system that is officially
sanctioned by the WCB," said Foster. "They not only accept it, it is actively
and aggressively encouraged because it lowers costs all around."
It also gives the government a chance to demonstrate
"improved safety" despite worsening numbers, said NDP labour critic Ray
"Almost everyone knows the WCB appeals commission is flooded
and that it takes months to deal with a single case. All of the evidence points
to the fact we have serious problems in Alberta with respect to protecting
workers and workers being injured on the job. And yet somehow, the government
insists things are getting better," he said.
The WCB does too. "We think (lost-time claims) are an
indication of how safe a workplace is because they speak to the severity of
accidents," said spokesman Jacqueline Varga.
But when asked whether other indicators should be considered
before weighing whether a workplace is safe - statistics regarding the number
of medical aids, for example - Varga said she "would agree with that."
Dr. Louis Francescutti, an injury expert at the Royal
Alexandra hospital, says the problem has gone on for so long he has little
faith it will ever be fixed.
"At conferences I do a lot of talking about what's going on
in Alberta and every time, people who are involved in industry and with safety
say 'Right on!' because they know all about it," said the doctor. "But when you
try to investigate it, just see how quickly people clam up."
Foster is more optimistic, noting some willingness on the
part of the provincial bureaucracy to do the right thing and change the
measurement system - as long as they can get their political masters to go
along with it. In the meantime, the escalating number of workplace deaths makes
it harder to sustain the rosy picture.
"You can hide stuff by keeping people on the job, by giving
them different work, by sending them for training," Foster said. "But - not to
sound too crass - you can't arrange modified work for someone who has
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