Friday, January 6, 2012

CBC interview about OHS prosecutions

Yesterday afternoon I was on the CBC drive-home show chatting about the government’s dismal record on workplace injury prosecutions. You can listen to the six-minute clip here.

I’ve had a couple of follow-on comments questioning why creative sentencing is on the upswing. My sense is that the government prosecutes so few OHS violations that those charges they do lay tend to be slam-dunks (i.e., prosecutors cream the “best” cases).

This allows the government to then go to the company and offer a choice: a long trial with lots of bad media coverage or a quiet guilty plea and the company can then pay the fine to a community group and look philanthropic. Companies then make the obvious choice.

One of the comments I didn’t have time to make during the interview are the bizarre discrepancies in health enforcement in Alberta. For example, riddle me this: why can I go online and find out that my favourite eatery had its cooler temperature two degrees too high and whether they’ve remedied that problem but I can’t go online and find out whether my kid’s employer passed their last safety inspection and, if they didn’t, what potentially life-threatening hazards are in that workplace?

It is a shame that no one from the government was available to comment yesterday on a news story generated by one of the government's own press releases... isn't generating press coverage of news the purpose of issuing a press release? I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any response and publish up a link.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. Apparently Barrie Harrison (government communications wonk) will be on RadioActive this afternoon at 5:10 to respond to my comments yesterday--if the CBC posts a digital clip, I will add a link.

  2. A government spokesperson was on RadioActive Friday to respond to my comments Thursday. RadioActive has not posted the government segment (they don’t post everything) so I’ll summarize. The short version is:

    1. The injury numbers I use (500k per year) are estimates. This is true, reflecting that official stats are misleading. We can document almost 150,000 injuries each year and then have to estimate to fill in the gaps. My estimates are, by the way, based on fairly conservative assumptions (for example, I completely exclude psychological injuries from the estimate).

    2. The government goes after “the big fish”—that is to say, it prosecutes employers where there is a serious injury and a significant likelihood of conviction. This is, I think, contestable. Even if we accept the government stat of 50,000 serious injuries a year (a better estimate would be over 100,000), is it really plausible that, of these 50,000 serious injuries that happen every year, only an average of 12-15 meet the standard for prosecution? I think that requires some substantiation from the government.

    3. Creative sentence are supported by the families of workers killed on the job. This is probably true. But it is rather irrelevant to the debate about whether creative sentences achieve a basic public policy objective of prosecution: deterrence.

    The host summarized the segments as (and this isn’t an exact quote) “there are 50,000 serious injuries each year and the government issues fines in 20 of those cases”. I can’t imagine that was the take-away message the government was hoping for.

    -- Bob Barnetson