Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Farm fatality highlights gaps in Alberta's new Employment Standard Code

Power take-off (PTO) from a tractor.
Alberta’s Bill 17 amended the Employment Standard Code. These amendments including extending certain employment rights to farm workers. One of the gaps in Bill 17’s coverage of farm workers is that there continue to be no rules around the hours of work, rest periods, and over time.

Farm workers are guaranteed four days of rest in 28 (a variation on the one-day-in-seven rule everyone else faces). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represent a clear health-and-safety issues that the government ducked.

This is more than just a notional concern. On June 29, a fatality inquiry into the 2014 death of farm worker Stephen Murray Gibson was released. Gibson was killed on January 31, 2014 after he was pulled into an unguarded drive shaft on a power take off (PTO) and killed. According to Justice Brown:
8. Mr. Gibson turned off the PTO from the tractor and began to clear by hand the jam in the 
auger. He then went to the tractor, started the PTO and returned to the auger, once more reaching up to clear grain; before Mr. Hamilton’s horrified gaze, part of Mr. Gibson’s clothing caught on the unshielded PTO and drew Mr. Gibson into the machinery, killing him instantly. 

One of the factors contributing to Gibson’s death was that the PTO did not have a guard to prevent entanglement on it. The 40- to 50-year-old PTO had originally been manufactured with one, but it was missing when the PTO was purchased by the farmer. Had there been a guard, Gibson likely would not have been killed.

A secondary factor may have been Gibson’s fatigue. The inquiry notes that, prior to his death, Gibson had not had a day off in the last 28 due to winter feeding and calving. Reaching into the augur while the unshielded drive shaft was spinning was a poor decision. Fatigue often impairs our decision-making capabilities.

Bill 17 largely ignores the hazard posed to farm workers by fatigue. By excluding farm workers from such protections, the government has prioritizing production demands over the health and safety of farm workers. Consequently, we’ll continue to see such deaths going forward.

The fatality inquiry makes two recommendations: (1) mandatory OHS education in PSE courses, and (2) annual government certification of farm equipment, including PTOs.

Recommending mandatory OHS training in post-secondary ag programs is a good idea. But safety education has been found to be demonstrably ineffective at preventing injury or changing farm safety practices in Canada. And OHS education has no effect on the presence of the hazards that contributed to this death (unguarded PTO and fatigue).

The second recommendation (although laborious to implement) would reduce the use of unsafe equipment on farms. It will be interesting to see if the farm OHS regulations that come out of the Bill 6 consultations entail any program of equipment inspection (since farm equipment often has a long lifespan and is subject to user modification).

Given this, the government may wish to revisit its position on regulating the hours of work for farm workers in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 14, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: My Hometown

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen. It is a song inspired by Springsteen’s life in Freehold Borough, New Jersey which was marked by racial strife.

Where the song starts to hit on labour is the third verse:
Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back 
This noting of the hollowing out of US industry is a recurring theme in the heartland rock wave that Springsteen rode in the mid-1980s. The closing verse talks about the hard choices workers have to make when jobs dry up.

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I'd sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He'd tousle my hair and say son take a good look around

This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In '65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come

To my hometown
My hometown
My hometown
My hometown

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back

To your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I'm thirty five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around
This is your hometown

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Research: Media representations of Chinese labour mobility

I recently ran across a book chapter entitled “Media representations of investment and labour in Alberta’s resourceeconomy” by Cassiano, Dorow and Schmidt. This chapter examines how two different discourses about Chinese transnational mobility related to Alberta’s oil sands are represented in two newspapers (2007 to 2013), these being direct foreign investment and temporary labour.

The nub of it is that investment = good and labour mobility = bad. The threat posed by Chinese workers and business practices to the social and political fabric of Canada makes Chinese transnational mobility threatening while, at the same time, valourizing Canadian values and practices. The result is a racist othering, primarily of Chinese workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 7, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Tragic

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features the novel “Tragic” by Robert Tanenbaum. Tannenbaum is a former prosecutor turned crime/court writer and Tragic is the 25th book in a series featuring an ever-prepared New York prosecutor putting away the bad guys.

Much like Tanenbaum’s earlier novel “Absolute Rage”, the baddies in this one are corrupt union officials. This time they are New York dockworkers who are in bed with the mob and also stealing the members’ pension funds (there is also a subplot about workplace injury). (In “Absolute Rage”, the bad union bosses were in bed with the coal companies and stealing the member’s pension funds. In “Trap” (which I haven’t read yet) the antagonist is a corrupt teacher’s union president in bed with skin heads.)

The really bad union president has one of his not-quite-so-bad rivals bumped off to prevent him from demanding a Department of Labour investigation into a rigged election (which is exactly the same premise as Absolute Rage). The difference in this book is that the writing is atrocious and there is basically no tension as the prosecutor (who is basically the author in disguise—the whole series leans a bit towards being a roman à clef) anticipates everything the moronic defense council tries.

Overall, Tanenbaum’s novels seem to pretty much align with the tendency of American media to portray unions as corrupt. As an aside, the Publisher’s Weekly reviews of his books on his website are masterfully backhanded (“…well, if you like this kind of thing, then he’s done it again.”) The author is a bit of a blowhard: consider this quote from his website about one of his own books:
I cannot predict that in the decades hence Echoes of My Soul will be remembered. I firmly believe it will be. And, if it is, it will be analyzed and postured as a splendid reflection of the values that define us.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Monetizing occupational cancer in Canada

Earlier this year, a study examining the economic cost of occupational cancer in Canada was released. “Costs of productivity loss due to occupational cancer in Canada: estimation using claims data from Workers’ Compensation Boards” found that the average annual cost of occupational cancer to the workers’ compensation system between 1996 and 2013 was $68 million (excluding costs paid by the medical system).

This is a useful study because it monetizes the cost of occupational cancer, which is the leading work-related cause of death. Like all studies, it has some weaknesses. As noted above, it does not consider costs borne by the publicly funded medical system or by cancer victims and their families. The author’s note there have been some attempts to monetize these costs:
Hopkins et al. [18] use data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, as well as published numbers from the literature to estimate the national-level cost of occupational cancer in terms of wage loss in 2009. They estimate that workers (patients) and their families have lost $ 3.18 billion [18]. Orenstein et al. [19] estimate that the indirect costs (loss of economic resources and reduced productivity) in Alberta alone are approximately $64 million per year, and that the province incurs approximately $16 million per year in medical system costs (Wranik, Muir and Hu, 2017).
There are also some methodological and data-related limitations that likely skew this study’s estimate downward. That is not a criticism of the study, just an acknowledgement that how you count and what you count affects the end result.

Perhaps the most salient things that the study highlights is that (1) there remains significant under-reporting of occupational cancer and, more broadly, (2) there is significant under-reporting of occupational fatalities.

The most commonly cited data is from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada, which “rolls up” provincial and territorial WCB stats. But unclaimed (or unaccepted) fatalities (of which disease claims form a significant portion) are missing from these stats.

Steve Tomb’s 1999 study of British occupational fatality statistics revealed the real rate of fatalities to be five times the officially reported rate. Given that fatalities are considered to be one of the firmer (or “harder”) measures of occupational injury in Canada, it would be interesting to see similar estimates of true the true level of fatality.

-- Bob Barnetson