Friday, May 13, 2011

Metal toxicity sheds light on gov't attitude

An interesting case has emerged in Edmonton that touches on workplace health and safety and how the government deals with it. In 2008, Narin Sok killed his wife. As it turns out, he was suffering from acute heavy metal poisoning. After an investigation of the bizarre circumstances,
Doctors concluded that Sok's toxicity started because of his occupation, leading to paranoia and abnormal behaviour. It also led to the impaired judgment that led him to burn the metal belts, which caused acute poisoning by inhalation.
Earlier this week, the government declined to investigate Sok's employer:
"We would not investigate because there was no complaint filed," said Sorcha Thomas, a spokeswoman for Alberta Employment and Immigration. "Also, this was not a workplace incident."
Yet, the Journal article continues "(u)nder provincial law, employers must have an exposure-control plan, including lead testing for employees, at workplaces that could contain airborne lead for more than 30 days in a given year."

Cue massive back pedaling (in my imagination, accompanied by the lilting rustle of a flurry of briefing notes). The next day, the Minister announces he did indeed send an inspector.
"My standard operating procedure is when a concern is raised to our attention, either by complaint or media or by any means, we make sure that we follow up on it," he said. "In addition to that, our officers, on an ongoing basis, routinely inspect all places of employment in Alberta."
We don't know the outcome of that inspection (and probably won't). But the more important question is how true are the Minister's statements?

Specifically, is it true that OHS inspectors "routinely inspect all places of employment in Alberta"? Annually, Alberta does around 10,000 inspections of various sorts in a year. That is drawn from the Auditor General's 2010 report and reflects 2008 numbers.

That sounds like a lot of inspections, but there are 144,000 employers in the province, many with multiple worksites. Alberta only "rountinely inspects all places of employment" if you define "routinely" as once every 14 to 20-odd years.

And is it true that "when a concern is raised to our attention, either by complaint or media or by any means, we make sure that we follow up on it"? In this case yes.

But is that always true, as the Minister's comments suggest? Concerns were raised this spring in the Legislature about child labour in Alberta. Let's see how the Minister responded as recorded in Hansard:
Mr. Chase: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. New research offers some startling figures. Nineteen per cent of 12- to 14-year-olds are employed, 21 per cent of whom are in prohibited occupations. Six per cent of nine- to 11-year-olds are employed, 78 per cent of them in prohibited occupations. No, this is not Dickensian England but Alberta today. To the minister of employment. I would like to ask on behalf of the Albertans who will be shocked by this report. Does the minister believe that Alberta’s Employment Standards Code has kept pace with community values?

Mr. Lukaszuk: Albertans will be shocked because what this report, that has been commissioned by the AFL, is suggesting is that there are 126,000 parents who allow their kids to be exploited, that there are 126,000 businesses in Alberta that exploit children, and that all of us, including you, Mr. Speaker, purchase products from businesses that exploit little children in Alberta. Humbug. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Note: Lukaszuk is wrong on two counts. The AFL partly funded, but did not commission the report. And the report suggests that roughly 15,000 children and adolescents are employed illegally. He also totally evaded the question.

The Speaker: The hon. minister should not bring the chair into the debate. The chair would never ever do what the minister said
he would do. The hon. member.

Mr. Chase: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. A sad case of transference. Enforcement of Alberta’s Employment Standards Code is complaint driven: no complaint, no problem. Isn’t it time for the minister to commit to proactive inspections of premises where children are employed in prohibited occupations?

The Speaker: With care, Minister.

Mr. Lukaszuk: Mr. Speaker, let’s not skirt the issue. What the report is suggesting and what AFL has publicized on their website is that they’re telling us that there are 126,000 children in this province working illegally, being exploited as labourers. Alberta has just cosigned an international agreement from Geneva, where we are eradicating forced child labour throughout the world. To suggest that we’re doing that in Alberta is reprehensible.

The Speaker: The hon. member.

Mr. Chase: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given that the minister has sat for over seven months on Alberta’s two-bit minimum wage increase, when can we expect the minister of child labour to act on this Alberta child exploitation information?

Mr. Lukaszuk: Mr. Speaker, this question doesn’t warrant a response. This member should stand up and apologize to all parents
in Alberta. Thank you.
Did the Minister follow up on these concerns about child labour as one might expect he would based upon his statement about the Sok metal poisoning? It is hard to know--the issue has disappeared.

Perhaps then, what "when a concern is raised to our attention, either by complaint or media or by any means, we make sure that we follow up on it"? means is that when there is a single, specific instance of concern raised, the government investigates?

Yet, in the Sok case, the government declined to investigate at first. It was only when there was media attention and it appears the Minister personally intervened that an inspection occurred.

My sense is that the government's initial reaction (that I would characterize as "see no evil, hear no evil, there must be no evil") is pretty representative of its general mindset towards violations of labour laws. If the issue is not a political hot potato, the government generally doesn't act.

What does that tell workers about whose side the government is on in matters of employment regulation in Alberta?

-- Bob Barnetson

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