On Thursday evening, I gave a short presentation at the annual general meeting of the Calgary Workers' Resource Centre. The presentation addressed the question of why is Aberta's occupational health and safety system ineffective. While the more interesting part was actually the discussion afterwards, I've reproduced the text of the presentation below.
Why is Alberta’s OHS system ineffective?
Calgary Workers’ Resource Centre Annual General Meeting
26 May 2011
Thanks for inviting me to speak today. I know I’m competing for your attention with a large tray of Nanaimo bars so I’ll keep my comments brief. I’m going to start by explaining how we count workplace injuries in Alberta. I know that sounds terribly boring, but how we count injuries shows us three important things.
It shows us that injuries are socially constructed—that is, what we call an injury can vary, often wildly. It shows us that Alberta’s occupational health and safety system simply doesn’t work. And it show us that we ought to question whose side the government is really on around workplace injury.
I’m then going to talk a bit about why, practically, I think Alberta’s occupational health and safety system doesn’t work. That too is really a numbers game. There is almost no chance of an employer getting caught breaking the law. And, if they do, there is almost no chance they will face any sort of consequence.
I’m going to wrap up by talking about why, politically, Alberta’s occupational health and safety system doesn’t work. The nub of this analysis is that it is not meant to work. Health and safety is not about protecting workers, it is about protecting government and employers.
So let’s talk about how we count injuries in Alberta. The government uses two main measures: the lost-time claim rate and the disabling injury rate.
Lost-time claims are injuries reported to the workers’ compensation board (WCB) where the worker could not go to work the next day because of an injury-sustained at work. The LTC rate is the number of LTCs per 100 person years worked. Expressing this number as a rate controls for changes in the size of the workforce so numbers become comparable across time.
Disabling injuries is a broader category. It includes injuries reported to the WCB where the worker either could not go to work the next day or could go to work but could not do their job in some way. The DI rate is also the number of disabling injuries per 100 person years worked.
This spring, the government announced the lost-time claim rate was 1.41 injuries for every 100 person years worked. The disabling injury claim rate was 2.67 per 100 person years worked. This sounds good but there are a number of shortcomings with these measures.
The most obvious is that using rates obscures the actual number of injuries. A disabling injury rate of 3.09 per 100 person years worked sounds much less bad than “this year we injured 53,000 people so badly they couldn’t do their job the next day”. Which is what a disabling injury rate of 3.09 actually means.
It is also possible for employers to “convert” more serious injuries to seemingly less serious injuries by how the employer handles the claim. So, you might need time at home to rest a sprained knee but the employer tells you to come in and do light duties. This converts a lost-time claim to a modified work claim, which reduces the lost-time claim rate. Employers do this because it saves them money on their workers’ compensation premiums. Or your employer might simply tell you not to report an injury and, poof, your injury becomes statistically invisible.
The most telling criticism, though, is that these injury indicators excluded many injuries. In fact, they exclude most injuries. For example, if you get injured badly enough you need to go to the doctor or have rehab, but you can do your job the next day, you are not counted as injured. If you just need first aid or the rest of the shift off, you are not counted as injured. If you are outside of the ambit of workers’ compensation or don’t report your injury you are not counted as injured. And if you get an occupational disease you are likely not counted as injured.
A quick example is often useful. In 2009, Alberta’s workplace injuries were as follows:
Lost time claims: 28,688
Modified work claims: 24,625
Total Disabling injury claims: 53,313
These are all of the injuries Alberta officially “counts” when it talks about injuries. But this is a minority of overall injuries. For example, Alberta collects data about injuries requiring medical treatment but no modified work:
Medical aid claims: 95, 854
Adding in these numbers, suddenly we can see that actual number of injuries is 149,167—three times what the official injury numbers are. But, again, that’s not the whole story.
Not covered? 13% 171, 456
Not reported? 40% 285,760
Minor injuries? Occupational disease? Unknown but it likely doubles the count to about 500,000 injuries a year. This is important for three reasons:
1. Injuries are socially constructed. Official statistics report about 1 in 10 workplace injuries, skewed towards the most serious injuries.
2. OHS does not work. No reasonable person could conclude Alberta’s health and safety system works when half a million injuries occur every year.
3. The government does not protect workers. That the government hides this massive number of injuries and runs a system using techniques that were a failure when they were first used in Ontario in 1886 tells us that they are playing for the employer’s team.
I think an important question is why doesn’t Alberta’s occupational health and safety work.
One possible explanation is that workers are simply careless—that they cause their own injuries and there is nothing you can do about that. Certainly there are always going to be instances where carelessness does contribute to an injury. But what research there is says that carelessness makes a small contribution to injury rates—maybe a third or a quarter of injuries have carelessness as a component.
It’s important to recognize that carelessness can only cause an injury when a hazardous condition is already present in the workplace. The presence of that hazard is the choice of an employer. Blaming a moment of worker inattention for an injury obscures the employer’s responsibility for organizing work in a risky way.
A related explanation is that injuries are inevitable. Employers and workers often disagree about framing workplace injuries as inevitable. And that isn’t surprising. Workers shoulder most of the consequences of such injuries. By contrast, employers and their investors reap most of the rewards. For employers, risk is mostly an economic issue. And thus they cast the risk of workplace injury as minimal, unavoidable and acceptable. This economic perspective dominates popular discussion and public policy.
One implication of that approach is that, since perfect safety is unattainable, safety initiatives should be assessed on a cost-benefit basis. Put bluntly, safety should only be improved when it costs less to prevent the injury than the injury itself costs. Employers assert that they ought to make these decisions because government regulation will cause rising prices, job losses, and a declining standard of living.
On the surface, this economic perspective appears quite sensible. Every thing we do entails some risk. And risk reduction can be very expensive. But workers—those who are most often injured and killed—tend to see things differently.
Workers note that workplace injury is not some sort of natural phenomenon that no one can control. Rather, the risks that workers face reflect decisions employers make—decisions about what, when, where and how goods and services are produced. Employers make these decisions with the goal of maximizing profitability. In that way, injury is a cost imposed on workers by employers. And allowing employers to do this is a political choice by the state.
Workers also know that the most important consequence of health and safety risks is not economic. It is the injury and death of workers. Reducing injury, disease and death—not maximizing cost-effectiveness—is the pre-eminent goal of occupational health and safety activities.
That’s not to say that workplace injuries don’t have economic consequences. Clearly they do. Injured workers can’t earn a living and lose their houses. Society must pay for medical treatment. Employers profit from dangerous work. But these economic outcomes are secondary effects—byproducts of workers being exposed to the risk of injury and death by their employers.
If you accept that injuries are not inevitable but rather are the result of employer decisions, the question then becomes why doesn’t regulation prevent them? I think the bottom line is that there is almost no risk of employers being caught violating safety rules. And, of they are caught, there is almost no chance of being penalized.
Consider workplace inspections. Alberta has 102 health and safety inspectors and performs somewhere around 10,000 inspections of various types each year. That sounds like a lot of inspection, but there are 144,000 employers, many of whom have more than one worksite. What that means practically is a worksite can expect one inspection every 14 to 20 years.
If you phone in a complaint, which is the other way to trigger an inspection, it can take up to 18 days for the government to respond. Assuming an inspector comes out (which isn’t always the case) and issues an order, it can take an average of 86 day to get the hazard remedied. What worker would bother with that process more than once?
Let’s take at an example. Last fall, the province announced an inspection blitz of commercial construction sites. 73 worksites sites were inspected and 214 OHS orders were issued. Over one-quarter of the worksites were subject to a stop-work order, which means there was imminent danger present. There were similar results during this spring’s blitz on forklift safety.
If employers don’t bother complying with the rules when they know they will be inspected, imagine what happens normally when they know there is no chance of inspection?
Similarly, when an employer does get caught egregiously violating the rules, there is almost no chance of legal sanction. In 2008, Alberta reported 22 successful prosecutions for violations going as far back as 2004. During that time, approximately 700 workers got killed.
The largest fine was $419,250 for a 2004 violation. That sounds impressive. But the company’s annual revenues were $47 million. That’s like you or me getting a $440 ticket for killing someone. Prosecution numbers actually dropped in 2009, with only 9 prosecutions and the highest fine being $300,000. And, as we saw this summer in the Calgary Herald’s investigative series, the government sometimes doesn’t collect these fines and can’t even tell how many were collected.
Realpolitik of Health and Safety
The key question here is why does the government run an ineffective health and safety system?
Perhaps inspections are just too expensive to do competently? The answer is no. Of the $23.3 million Alberta spent on OHS in 2009, roughly $21.7 million came from employer premiums transferred from the WCB. Direct taxpayer funding of OHS was approximately $1.6 million. The government could clearly afford to spend more if it wanted effective inspections.
I think it is also fair to ask whether non-enforcement is solely a health and safety issue. Again, the answer is no. Alberta’s child labour laws are widely violated and there is no meaningful enforcement of them. Again employers face little chance of being caught violating the law and no penalty beyond having to pay whatever unpaid wages are due.
I think the government regulates ineffectively because government politicians want it that way--it is an intentional strategy. Governments face pressure from businesses to minimize regulation. Less regulation reduces employers’ operating costs. In the case of workplace injury, it also allows them to externalize some costs of production onto workers, their families and society in form of workplace injuries because they can organize work more hazardously,
At the same time, governments have to maintain their own legitimacy and the legitimacy of capitalism. They can’t afford to have it look like employers can injure workers willy-nilly. So they create a set of rules that says injuring workers is bad. This makes it appear that the government is doing something about workplace injury. And then government simply underfund the system so it has no real effect in the workplace.
They also create a system of injury compensation. This does reduce some of the financial burden of injury for workers--although coverage isn’t universal. And many forms of injury are ignored or excluded. And, of course, workers are still maimed and disabled at an alarming rate. The government then uses the careless worker myth to explain away these injuries—basically saying “it is workers’ own darned fault” that they got injured.
Together, the health and safety and workers’ compensation systems are designed to channel worker resistance to being maimed and killed into manageable processes. Rather than worker joining unions, putting down their tools and maybe supporting worker-friendly parties, workers are encouraged to phone in complaints, watch out for themselves, and seek compensation when they get hurt.
That is a pretty lousy system for workers. But it works great for employers and the government. The government gets to look like it cares about workers’ health. And employers get to run their shops with no regard for the damage they cause workers. And that's why Alberta's occupational health and safety system is ineffective.