Monday, May 2, 2011

2010 OHS stats released

In an unusual move, the government released Alberta's occupational health and safety stats on a Sunday. The short version of the press release is that injury rates continue to go down, although fatalities are up.

There are a couple of interesting features of this release. The first is the timing. The government almost never issues a news release on a weekend, which means a Sunday release had to be quite intentional. There is no explanation for the timing of the release in the Edmonton Journal's coverage.

The explanation that jumped to my mind was the Minister was trying to "take out the rash" by releasing a story when fewer reporter were working and most of those were focused on today's election. The AFL issued a news release last Thursday re: OHS stats, one presumes to prime the media for the story when the official announcement was made. Taking out the trash may be a tactical response.

The second feature is that the government has recalculated the various measures of injury it uses (i.e., lost-time claims, disabling injury rates). One outcome of the recalculation is that the numbers have gone down. This information is in the backgrounder that follows the press release on the government website, although it is not included in the press release that the government sent out by email. You have to know that this notation in the release means "something is up!" and have to then go looking for the data: "Backgrounder: Occupational Health and Safety - 2010 Data and Methodology"

The actual rejigging of injury numbers is largely meaningless beyond making clear that such indicators are created by government and thus subject to periodic manipulation. I'm going to assume this recalculation was made in good faith and is an attempt to provide a better picture. Although the former bureaucrat in me is skeptical that the recalculation would ever have seen the light of day if the recalculation had come out with higher rates .

The third feature is the general impression left by the news release. The lead reads:

Alberta's workplace injury rates at a 20-year record low
Increased occupational disease fatalities prompt new strategy

Edmonton... Alberta’s new lost-time claim rate is the lowest in 20 years of data gathering. The 2010 lost-time claim rate is 1.41 injuries for every 100 full-time jobs. This compares to a rate of 1.53 last year, down from 4.13 in 1991, marking 10 straight years of decline.

The disabling injury claim rate, which includes workers injured yet able to perform modified work, also decreased to 2.67 in 2010 from 2.79 per 100 full-time jobs in 2009, and 3.34 per 100 in 2008.
This sounds like pretty good news. And this is, in part, the reason injuries rates are such an attractive way to discuss injuries. "1.41 injuries per 100 jobs? That's nothing!" It is less attractive to report actual numbers of injuries (so the government doesn't).

Here are the 2009 actual injury rates as provided through special request to the WCB.

* 28,688 lost-time claims (worker couldn’t go to work the next day).
* 24,625 disabling injuries claims (workers can go to work but can’t do some part of their job)
* 95,854 claims for injuries requiring medical treatment or rehab but no time away from work.

For those keeping track, that brings us to about 149,167 injuries in 2009.

That is a lot of injuries. But that’s not the whole story. We need to correct for the roughly 13% of the workforce not covered by workers’ compensation (171,456) and the 40% of compensable claims that are not reported. This pushes the number of injuries up to about 285,760 injuries.

That is a lot of injuries. But it is still not a full count. It excludes almost all instances of occupational disease. It also excludes injuries that didn’t require a trip to the doctor or time off work. Things like burns, small cuts, sprains, and bruises. While minor, these are still injuries that workers might rather avoid.

The total injury count in Alberta is unknowable. But I’d guess there are about half-a million injuries annually—roughly one in four workers if you distributed injuries evenly throughout Alberta's roughly 2 million workers.

What does this suggest? Well, most importantly, it suggests that Alberta's OHS system fundamentally does not work. No reasonable person can conclude that hundreds of thousands of injuries annually is an indicator of an effective OHS system.

Interesting how the timing of the release and the method of counting injury both obscure that conclusion.

-- Bob Barnetson

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