Friday, September 3, 2010

An insider's view of OHS policy making

My colleague Jason Foster has just had an article published examining social dialogue as a way of setting employment regulations. "Talking ourselves to death? The prospects for social dialogue in North America--Lessons from Alberta" uses two case studies to examine the efficacy of this approach.

Foster considers the complex decisions that unions face about whether to participate in these forms of consultation. Of particular interest are his conclusions about the opportunity costs that comes with engagement as well as the largely defensive nature of the "gains" labour can make in such a process.

The cases also provide an insider's perspective on occupational health and safety policy making in Alberta. This is particularly relevant given the scrutiny the government has faced this summer over its poor record on prosecuting workplace fatalities. The most recent development here is the government's decision (eight years after it first promised to) to release data about employer safety records.

The injury data to be released, however, provides only a partial and, frankly, misleading view of workplace safety. It is unclear yet whether the government will respond to calls to release employer inspection data. Today the Minister suggested the laying of charges for a 2008 death was a sign the province will be "lowering the hammer" on unsafe employers.

While prosecutions after a worker has been killed on the job may sate our desire for justice, the real goal is prevent injuries. Alberta does a poor job of that. In 2009, there were 149,000-odd reported workplace injuries where workers at a minimum had to seek medical treatment for an injury they got a work. Given the degree of under-reporting or workplace injuries, the real number of injuries is likely close to double that.

The crux of the issue is whether the government will pony up the money to fund an effective inspection system. Right now the government spends about $2 million a year on OHS--the rest of the $23 million or so comes from the WCB. There is also the question of whether the government is prepared to accept the political backlash they will get from employers if there are more inspection.

Yet is there really any other alternative but more inspections if fewer injuries are to occur? If inspections are randomly distributed (and they likely are not), the present system sees each workplace inspected about once every 25 years--yes, Alberta has a once-a-generation inspection cycle. Despite all of the other levers the government has pulled (financial incentives, gory posters, pretty awards, stirring speeches), there are still 149,000 injuries annually. Clearly something significant needs to change in the government's approach.

-- Bob Barnetson

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