Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An employer perspective on OHS in Alberta

Several times a month, I get a phone call or an email from an injured worker who wants to talk about their injury or something I’ve posted. This week I’ve been having a fascinating exchange with a employer-side safety professional and my correspondent has agreed to allow me to draw upon our discussion on the condition of anonymity.

I don’t think my correspondent and I agree on a number of issues but our conversation provides an insider perspective on OHS in Alberta that is enlightening to read. I’ve selectively quoted a portion of our conversation (using ellipses) and added in a few clarification (or suppressed identifying details) using brackets [ ]:
…For the next year we have 2 very minor injuries and some minor first aid incidents. … Then the unthinkable happens - an employee amputates [a body part].

…[T]he employer steps up to the plate and does everything possible to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation. …Now here's the part where it gets interesting.... Due to the introduction of the PIR [Partners in Injury Reduction] program (again great idea but horrifically flawed) most of our clients require all of our confirmed performance stats as well as all COR [Certificate of Recognition] information.

The way the program is structured [means] another serious incident …[means]… the COR [will be] suspended pending an external audit of the systems despite the fact that performance over the past 18 months during very rapid and unprepared growth has shown their safety program and performance is excellent.

… Now they are faced with [XXX] employees potentially not working in a market where skilled help is very difficult to maintain. So what happens with MOST business at this point or even before it - is they will cheat.

Big companies are notorious for it. They will maintain their own medical staff, pay for air ambulance privately, have employees sitting in an office essentially doing nothing so time loss is either hidden completely or vastly minimized though no meaningful work was ever performed. I have worked for midsized employers in the past who had a practice of discouraging staff from any WCB paperwork and they would pay them to sit at home and recover in exchange.

This is far more common than one would like to think but its because the systems implemented ostensibly to improve safety have not achieved a safer work environment but has created penalization if you do not have huge dollars to put into disability "management" which in truth is all to often just subterfuge at the ongoing expense of the worker. In the mean time the real issues with workplace safety continue to languish because they are not effectively addressed by these programs and are a distraction to the employer in regards to what is actually important.

So now back to this particular company - another challenge crops up on their horizon – [a long-term degenerative injury manifests itself at work]. He agrees he cannot tie this to any particular thing - it has happened before over the years. The company has both short and long term disability - very prudent when looking after employees I think. However as this all progresses three different Doctors try very hard to turn it into a WCB claim rather than put it onto the disability insurance.

Turns out in Alberta if you are on WCB you can jump the line for treatments because the WCB mandate is to reduce costs therefor push treatment through rapidly. No one will openly admit this but Doctors advocating for their patients will in these instances try to turn it into a WCB claim for quicker treatment. So now the Doctors have pushed WCB and WCB contacts the employer and tries to also force the claim.

Can you imagine what this does - they face yet another lost time claim that may never turn into a productive rehabilitated employee without pain - their WCB rates go through the roof - they have paid for disability insurance that is not allowed to be used as was intended and perhaps now the COR is suddenly at stake and therefore the business. The coming year begins to look very shaky indeed.

The natural thing for them to do now is fight every claim on every level legitimate or not. This employer has now been forced from the position of following all the rules to having to invest in the same tactics used by larger corporations and guess what - in the end is at the expense of the workers.

Let’s assume that everything my correspondent says is correct. It might not be (although it broadly jives with what workers tell me, which increases the credibility in my eyes) but let’s pretend and see where that takes us. My reaction is that this example highlights systemic issues in injury prevention and compensation that are exacerbated by the government’s PIR and the WCB’s experience rating program.

Setting aside the issue that injury prevention is basically ineffective in Alberta, it appears that (usually large) employers can and do hide injuries. They have two incentives to do this: first they minimize their WCB premiums (a claims record with few or no costs on it leads to experience rating and PIR premium rebates) and second they maintains their ability to secure work for companies that must have a COR.

Herein we see the putative goal of experience rating and PIR (i.e., injury reduction) actually triggering illegitimate claims management (academic research are identifies this dynamic). And the nature of this claims management disadvantages small- and medium-sized employers (who can’t afford to both pay for workers’ compensation and also set up a parallel system to circumvent it) as well as workers (who are pressured not to exercise their rights to compensation).

As I said, a fascinating glimpse into OHS from the perspective of small- and medium-sized employers. I may excerpt from further correspondence (we’ll see how it goes).

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. Thanks for posting this great conversation. This dynamic is par for the course with large corporations: regulation is used to pressure smaller competition, and the cost is paid by the workers (or the public). The basics of this will never change; they are based on biological and physical laws (trophic levels and conservation of energy).

  2. I think health and safety is not about the legislation, it is about people. Organizations should give opportunity to employees to involve in their work and have enough time so that they can take care about their health and safety.