There has been a flurry of media coverage about workplace injury in Alberta following an April 2010 report by Alberta's auditor general. This report found serious weaknesses in Alberta's occupational health and safety (OHS) system.
The main weaknesses included the absence of a clear system by which to escalate enforcement activity when persuasion is ineffective and the existence of a group of persistent violators (who had higher injury rates), including some who continue to hold Certificates of Recognition for their injury prevention work!
While these issues are important, the report ignores the broader issue of whether overall enforcement activity is adequate to protect workers (the ultimate purpose of the OHS Act and Code). The Alberta Federation of Labour quickly released a report that highlights some of the failings of the OHS system.
Both the AFL and government reports use workers' compensation board (WCB) statistics as a measure of injury. For example, in 2007 the WCB reported it accepted about 175,297 new accepted injury claims and 154 fatalities. These numbers do not address injuries not report, claims not accepted and injuries in workplaces not covered by workers' compensation.
The real number of injuries in 2007 was more like 321,378. If these injuries were distributed evenly throughout the workforce, that would be about 1 in 5 workers. These numbers largely exclude most instances of occupational disease. If included, these would further drive up the number.
This high number of injuries suggests that (1) many workplaces are dangerous and (2) OHS enforcement is not effective. Ineffective enforcement is easily explain: there are simply not enough resources and no political will to enforce the law. Consider these statistics:
Inspectors: In 2008, Alberta had 84 health and safety inspectors, 144,000 employers and 2,013,300 employees. This means there was 1 inspector for every 1714 employers (many of whom have more than one worksite) and every 23,968 workers. These ratios explain why it takes the government an average of 18 days to respond to a report about an unsafe worksite. Even when unsafe conditions are found, it takes an average of 86 days to remedy them.
Inspections: The Auditor General’s report suggests there were 9600 site visits in 2008, although many of these inspections were repeat visits to the same employer. It may be more accurate to look at 2004 data on the number of worksites inspected (5237). If we (charitably) assume each of Alberta’s 140,000+ employers had only one worksite, it would take more than 26 years for every worksite to receive a single visit. In 2007/08, inspectors issued 3392 orders, approximately one per 100 workplace injuries.
Prosecutions: In 2008, Alberta reported 22 successful prosecutions under the Occupational Health and Safety Code for violations going as far back as 2004. During this time, Alberta recorded approximately 700 occupational fatalities. The largest fine was $419,250 for a 2004 violation. That sounds impressive. When compared to the company’s annual revenues of $47 million in 2007, such fine is akin a person with an annual income of $50,000 getting a $440 ticket—about same fine you’d get for doing 80kmh in a construction zone. Prosecution numbers actually dropped in 2009, with only 9 prosecutions and the highest fine being $300,000.
The upshot is that (1) Alberta employers are unlikely to be inspected even if there is an injury, (2) they face little chance of prosecution even if they kill or maim a worker, and (3) prosecution results in a relative small fine. Given this, it is hardly surprising that injury numbers are high.
The Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk recently patted his department on the back, noting a decline in injury numbers in 2009. “We’ve made good progress reducing workplace injuries but we can still do better.” Setting aside that this reduction likely has more to do with declining employment in dangerous occupations as a result of the recession than anything his department has done, Alberta certainly can do better. A place to start would be with OHS funding.
In 2008/09, Alberta spent about $23.3 million on OHS, of which $21.7 million came from the WCB (i.e., surplus employer premiums). That is to say, the government contributed about $1.6 million to OHS work. What this suggests is that ineffective OHS enforcement is a direct result of the government choosing to restrict funding. In this way, Alberta's injury rate is a political choice about funding levels and how much intervention in the workplace is acceptable rather than being the product of chance or carelessness.
-- Bob Barnetson