Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Thomas Lukaszuk recently gave an interview to the Cold Lake Sun. On occupational health and safety, the Sun reports:
The minister noted while much work has been done on safe and fair workplaces, he wants to see “a culture of safety” implemented via education and, if necessary, enforcement.
“Ninety-nine per cent of our employers are exemplary, but there’s always that one per cent,” he noted.
There are two difficulties with this statement.
First, 99% of employers are not exemplary. While the government has released fewer and fewer safety stats over the years (for example, the last inspection data available is from 2009!), we do have more recent data from inspection blitzes in 2010, 2011 and 2013:
- 2013 Sand and Gravel Crushing: 89% of 64 workplaces had one or more
- 2013 Ski Hills: 64 orders were issued at 26 workplaces had one or more violations (can’t compute percentage of noncompliance from data)
- 2011 Young Workers: 69% of 118 workplaces had one or more violations.
- 2011 Residential Construction: 55% of 380 workplaces had one or more violations
- 2011 Powered Mobile Equipment: 75% of 87 (I think) workplaces had one or more violations
- 2010 Commercial Construction: 214 orders were issued to 73 workplaces (can’t compute percentage of noncompliance from data)
Clearly it is not 1% of employers who are bad actors—the majority of these employers are non-compliant. Some noncompliance is pretty minor (paperwork issues) but a lot os very significant and poses immediate hazards to life and limb.
Lukaszuk knows this. In 2010, he was “disgusted” by employer non-compliance, telling the CBC:
"The hammer is coming down in Alberta and if we continue seeing numbers like these, the hammer simply will be getting bigger and bigger," he said. "I take this very seriously and I expect that this will be a wakeup call."
Fast-forward four years and, despite more talk about a hammer coming down, fatalities are at an all-time high, prosecutions at an all-time low and the province’s new fines are clearly a paper tiger.
The real question here is why is Lukaszuk misrepresenting employers’ degree of compliance with the OHS Code?
Did Lukaszuk forget about the inspections that so incensed him in 2010 and 2011? Or did he forget about the ever-growing fatality numbers he railed against in early February of 2014?
Or is there another agenda at work here?
My guess is that politicians are very uncomfortable about workplace injuries and deaths. Yet they are also uncomfortable sending inspectors to worksites (which are often owned by Tory supporters).
If confronted with bad news, they will rail against employers maiming and killing voters. But absent such news, they tend to dole out sunshine and lollipops in the hopes everyone will forget the workers who die each year.
The second difficulty with Lukaszuk’s statement is that education clearly doesn’t work. The government has been educating (in lieu of enforcement) since 1995 and fatality rates (about the best proxy we have for safety in Alberta) keep going up. There is no good reason to think education is going to be effective.
Education is a favourite remedy for Tory MLAs because it places the blame for injuries on workers (who apparently need education), sounds enlightened and makes few demands of employers. This is, however, likely cold comfort to the family and friends of the at least 188 Albertans who died last year as a result of their job.
-- Bob Barnetson