Friday, March 4, 2011

Alberta hires more OHS inspectors

Minister Lukaszuk announced Alberta would be hiring 30 new OHS inspectors over the next next three years. This is a useful improvement, added to the 16 OHS officers hired this year.

According to Lukaszuk, "“I hope this sends a strong message to any company or worker in Alberta who feels the law doesn’t apply to them. That’s 132 officers delivering a message that no company, no individual is above the law.”

But before buying the Minister a beer, let's work through the numbers. If there are 140,000 employers in the province (many with multiple worksites), these hirings will mean (in three years) we'll have 1 inspector per 1060 employers.

If an inspector can inspect 100 different employers per year (with follow up, holidays, meetings, training, etc. factored in) it will take 10-and-a-half years to get around to everyone once. If you knew you were only going to face one speed trap every 10 years, would you obey the speed limit?

Even if an inspector could visit twice that many workplaces--we're still talking about an inspection cycle of once every 5 years. In effect, the chance of getting caught violating the laws is still slim to none.

To be fair, more inspectors is a positive step. But, at best, it makes it (slightly) more probable that an infraction will be caught and thus may (slightly) increase the likelihood that an employer will comply with the safety rules.

The other part of the equation is what happens when someone gets caught violating the law? If you have a look at the OHS prosecutions, you can see the numbers are low--just 11 successful convictions in 2010.

It is hard to know what to make of this number--it has gone down from a high of 22 prosecutions in 2008. The number of workplace injuries gives us some useful context.

Annually there are about 140,000 WCB claims for injuries of various types. The actual number of injuries is likely two or two-and-half times this number--many injuries are not covered, not reported or not counted for various reasons.

These numbers tell us two things. First, Alberta's OHS system is not effective at preventing injury. 140,000 claims for work-related injury is a huge number of injuries. Thirty extra inspectors does not change that.

Second, if employer violations of safety rules account for even 10% of these injuries (a hyper conservative estimate), the chance of getting convicted is still one in more than a thousand.

Effectively there is no chance of being caught and no sanction if you are caught. It is little wonder safety non-compliance is rampant.

-- Bob Barnetson

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