Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Is a general strike in the offing for Alberta?


I attended an information picket hosted by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) last Tuesday. This picket was one of many AUPE is hosting to voice its members’ opposition to Bill 9, which the government passed in order to break collective agreements and stall wage arbitrations for public-sector workers.

AUPE (and other unions) have been organizing pickets all summer. These pickets are designed to channel and publicize public-sector workers’ anger. They also normalize picketing and are useful in identifying and training a new cadre of union activists going into what will likely be a difficult period for unions (legislated wage rollbacks are expected this fall).

The tone on this picket line was notably chippier than the one I attended in July. There were lots of cars honking in support. The only negative feedback I saw was from one (of course) pickup driver. I didn’t catch what he shouted but the shouted response from several female healthcare workers was “I hope you never need anyone to wipe your ass in hospital!”

There were the usual rah-rah speeches. A notable departure from the usual talking points was made by AUPE President Guy Smith who said (and this is a slight paraphrase) these pickets are practice for a general strike because, if the government won't respect our rights and the courts won’t force them to, a general strike is our only option. As an aside, general strikes were the subject of a very interesting analysis by Organizing Work a few weeks back.

Union leaders have studiously avoided talking about an illegal strike in public until now. The Court of Appeal overturning the injunction against Bill 9 and the MacKinnon panel musing about legislated bargaining mandates, back-to-work legislation and the notwithstanding clause may have contributed to this change in tone. Essentially, if the government is set on denying workers any meaningful legal recourse when the government violates the Charter and breaks collective agreements, the only option (as Smith suggested) is to take to the streets.

An interesting question is whether this speech was a calculated warning shot designed to sober up the government, a emotionally driven response to a tough couple of weeks for the labour movement, or an honest communication to workers about where things are heading? I’m inclined to think there is a bit of all three explanations at work.

If you’ve ever crossed swords with him, you’ll know that Smith is passionate and can engage in some… errr… rhetorical excess when he gets pissed off. That’s not to say he isn’t savvy and calculating (he definitely is both those things). Indeed, he may be leveraging the apparent ineffectiveness of legal options as a way to pressure other labour leaders into taking a more aggressive stance than they might otherwise be inclined to.

His comments may also have beeb an effort to warn the government of the consequences of their intended course of action. Jason Kenney’s spat with Amnesty International (of all groups) this week suggests that this kind of warning is likely just going to amp up a government that is already demonstrably intemperate and thin-skinned. I presume Smith knows that. Perhaps Smith is making lemon-aide: there’s gonna be a fight, so its best to goad Kenney into (further) overplaying his hand because a boss who’s being a complete asshole is a great asset to unions.

And telling workers there’s going to be a fight (especially a sympathetic crowd like people who picket after work) is a good way to start inoculating workers against the fear and smear campaign the government will likely run in conjunction with any legislation. It’s also the honest and right thing to do.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rethinking Alberta's essential services legislation

This post original appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

In January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that "[t]he right to strike is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining system" and effectively made blanket bans on public sector strikes unconstitutional. As was required of all provinces in the wake of the ruling, Alberta's then-New Democratic Party (NDP) government enacted legislation in 2016—Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services—that granted most public-sector workers the right to strike as long as essential services were maintained.

Alberta's public sector unions were broadly supportive of this change, as the right to strike was expected to incentivize public sector employers to bargain more earnestly than they did when bans on public sector strikes were in place and disputes were resolved by arbitration. That this right to strike was subject to limits to maintain essential services was (at least publicly) described as a fair trade-off.

During the 2019 provincial election, the United Conservative Party (UCP) promised a raft of changes to provincial labour law, including replacing the portion of the current essential services provisions that bars the hiring of replacement workers when there is an essential services agreement (ESA) in effect. The UCP's expected amendments to Alberta’s labour laws to provide an opportunity to reconsider how to best reconcile workers' right to strike with protection of the public interest.

Interests during work stoppages

A work stoppage—either a strike or lockout—is a contest between a union and an employer. Each side applies economic pressure to the other in the hope of achieving a more favourable settlement than it could otherwise negotiate.

Unions apply pressure mainly by denying the employer their members' labour. In the case of a private-sector employers, a strike is effective by reducing the profits of the employer. By contrast, a strike generates political pressure on public sector employers because they are unable to deliver the services they are mandated to provide. In both cases unions generally want as many of their members to be on strike as possible to maximize the pressure on the employer.

The state has enacted labour laws that create significant procedural obstacles to work stoppages. These barriers, such as compulsory mediation, don't ban work stoppages but drag out the process and make it harder for unions to build support for strike action. While these laws formally apply to both unions and employers, in practice they weigh more heavily on unions.

For their part, employers use a variety of techniques to weaken a union's strike power, including hiring replacement workers (sometimes called "scabs"). Scabs allow the employer to keep operating (to some degree) while the striking workers go without a salary. The only limit on the use of scabs in Alberta is a ban on using replacement workers when an ESA is in place.
Alberta’s essential services legislation

Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services amended the Labour Relations Code and Public Sector Employee Relations Act. The key changes were:
  • The default dispute-resolution process when public sector bargaining reaches impasse became strike-lockout (excepting firefighters and police officers, who continued to use mandatory arbitration).
  • Where employees performed essential services, an ESA had to be negotiated before the parties could access mediation, hold a strike vote or lockout poll, or commence a work stoppage. An essential service was defined as one where (1) the cessation of the service would endanger the life, health or safety of the public, or (2) the service is necessary to maintain the rule of law or public security.
  • ESAs are negotiated between the union and employer under the oversight of a commissioner appointed by the government. The parties may engage the services of an umpire to assist them in settling the terms an ESA.
Once an ESA is in place, the employer is prohibited from hiring (or otherwise acquiring the services of) replacement workers during any work stoppage. If an employer is deemed to provide no essential services then there is no prohibition on hiring scabs.

Unlike the other procedural requirements that must be met before a work stoppage can begin, essential services legislation is not formally even-handed. Rather, it is designed to diminish the effectiveness of a strike (and thus the union's leverage) in order to protect the public, which would be harmed if hospitals suddenly closed or the water went off. In contrast, the only part of the existing essential services legislation that in any way diminishes employer's leverage is the ban on using scabs. As previously mentioned, the UCP has promised to repeal this ban on hiring replacement workers.

ESA effects on interests

Alberta's current essential services legislation is far from perfect and appears to have created unexpected and sometimes perverse outcomes. In some cases, the legislation incentivizes employers to seek to evade their obligation to protect the public interest in order to increase their bargaining power, and in some cases effectively renders moot workers' right to strike.

Consider public sector employers that provide relatively few essential services, such as post-secondary institutions. The replacement-worker ban incentivizes these employers to try to avoid negotiating an ESA so the employer can use scabs to undercut the unions' strike power. To the degree that these employers can and do evade an ESA, this incentive undermines the protection of the public interest.

There are, of course, checks and balances in this system. An employer that wants to avoid an ESA must convince the Essential Services Commissioner that the employer provides no essential services. This sounds like a good system, but practically speaking the only way the commissioner would know if the employer was lying is if the union opposed the application. If the union decided not to fight for an ESA, employers could gain an exemption.

A union might choose to not fight for an ESA because such a fight delays the union's ability to move into a strike position. Some public sector employers have been very successful in drawing out ESA negotiations for months by rejecting the need for an ESA or by delaying the disclosure of information necessary to negotiate the ESA. Stalling the conclusion of an ESA undermines workers' right to strike, which is already delayed by other legislative requirements, and can sap a union's capacity to strike. In the meantime, the employer continues operations and the workers do without whatever concessions they were seeking in bargaining.

That unions might not choose to fight for an ESA is a real risk. After six months of employer stalling, my own union had to decide whether we should put the public interest (i.e., advocating for an ESA) ahead of our members' economic interests (i.e., getting to a strike position as quickly as possible). In the end, we decided to protect the public, in part because we also benefited from the scab ban, but that decision could easily have gone the other way.

ESAs and illegal strikes

The ability of employers to delay the negotiation of an ESA also heightens the risk that workers will engage in illegal work stoppages. This is a very real risk in the health- and seniors-care systems, where workers provide many services that are essential. In these workplaces, the essential services legislation incentivizes employers to seek to have virtually the whole workforce deemed essential.

For example, consider a long-term care facility where 85 or 90% of the services have been deemed essential. The tiny fraction of union members who can legally strike can walk the picket line eight hours a day, week after week, in fair weather or foul, but this strike has little chance to succeed because business basically continues as normal. This dynamic undermines the public-policy objective of protecting workers' constitutional right to strike by allowing them only a meaningless strike.

In some ESA negotiations in seniors care facilities, employers have actually argued for a level of staffing during a work stoppage that is higher than the level of staffing with which the employer normally operates. Attempting to find the true level of staffing required to maintain essential services has proven to be an nearly insurmountable problem. Often, whether a task or a job is an essential service is not clear, and employers—who hold most of the information—have an incentive to shade this information. Umpires can be reluctant to rule against employers because the risk of being wrong is that someone could die as a result.

The patience of union members is not endless, and at some point the workers will simply (albeit illegally) walk out. Illegal (or "wildcat") strikes are profoundly disruptive and can bring about the disruption of truly essential services that ESAs are specifically designed to prevent. In these cases, the ESA process itself also undermines the public policy goal of protecting the public. While unions face severe financial penalties for wildcat strikes, they may well turn a blind eye to pending wildcats because they know it may be the most effective to resolve a bargaining impasse.

Analysis and options for reform

Overall, Alberta's experience with ESAs suggests they significantly impede workers' constitutional right to strike. So why did the worker-friendly NDP government enact legislation like this? The answer is likely that the government had to respond to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling while trying to balance the interests of workers and the public. Essential services legislation offers a widely accepted (if ineffective) way to do this. It also creates further barriers to effective and legal public sector strikes—which was in the NDP's interest while in government.

The UCP’s election promise to eliminate the replacement worker ban will have three effects:
  1. For employers with few essential services, eliminating the scab ban eliminates one incentive for employers to resist an ESA. Employers may still stall negotiation to delay job action.
  2. For employers with many essential services, eliminating the scab ban has no effect on the incentive to seek an overly inclusive ESA or stall negotiation to delay job action.
  3. For unions, the removal of the scab ban further undercuts their ability to mount a meaningful strike by giving employers the power to hire replacement workers in addition to being able to stall strikes and negotiate overly expansive ESAs.
The key problem with the current approach is that the process incorrectly assumes that both parties will put the public interest before their respective self-interests. In doing so, it simply creates another venue for employer-union conflict.

Assuming the UCP government follows through on its promise to eliminate the ban on scabs, workers may be better off with an alternative approach to protecting the public interest. For example, employers might be granted a fixed window of time during which they must develop a plan by which to maintain essential services. After this time period has passed, all union members can go on strike or be locked out (assuming the other legislative requirements for a work stoppage are met). This approach ensures the public interest is protected while minimally impairing the ability of public sector workers to exercise their constitutional right to strike. It does this by placing responsibility for maintaining essential services where it belongs: on public sector employers. The employer is best positioned to know what services are truly essential, and the employer can make whatever arrangements are necessary to protect the health, safety, and life of the public, as well as maintain public order.

This might include redeploying managers, hiring replacement workers, and/or negotiating some sort of voluntary and partial coverage with the union. The cost of such arrangements may also incentivize some employers to actually negotiate in good faith (thus reducing the risk of a work stoppage).

While workers would face no onerous legal restrictions on their right to strike, the strike power of unions would remain constrained by:
  • some union members crossing their own union's picket line,
  • employers aggressively planning to maintain services, and
  • public sympathy for strikes waning over time as inconvenience mounts.
The thorniest question about this proposal from the government's perspective is how it can ensure the public interest is protected against an incompetent employer. The government can doubtlessly find ways to require planning and penalize incompetence in the civil service as well as among public sector agencies, boards, and commissions. Should a true threat to public safety arise, it can be dealt with under the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code.

From the perspective of workers, the greatest risk of this proposal is that the government will collude with public sector employers to misuse the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code in order to prevent effective strikes. For example, an employer might make no preparations and the government would then be "forced" to use public emergency (or other) provisions to stall job action. The only check against this sort of collusion is the potential for wildcat strikes. While the state can use the legal system to sanction illegal strikes, if workers and unions are willing to bear the sanctions that result, then the harm caused by the strike continues.

It is very unlikely that the UCP will make such a fundamental change to the essential services regime. This reflects that, like the NDP government that preceded it, the UCP government will benefit from the barrier to effective and legal public sector strikes created by the existing ESA provisions. Instead, the UCP is likely to simply remove the replacement worker ban when an ESA is in place, which will further tip the playing field in favour of the employer (i.e., the government) by delaying job action and undermining workers' strike power.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Walter's Mine Disaster, 1907

This summer, I took a cemetery walking tour with my wife (after 20 years, finding new things to do for date night is a challenge!). This year we toured the Mount Pleasant cemetery I south Edmonton and we ran across this monument to workers killed in a mining incident in 1907.


Mining deaths were common at the turn of the last century. The 1910 Coal Creek and 1914 Hillcrest Mining disasters jump to mind. There is a nice song about the Hillcrest Disaster:


While Edmonton’s river valley is presently mostly known as a recreational space, 100 years ago, it was an industrial hub, hosting small coal mines (200 by one count), lumber mills, and brick yards. The present Mill Creek Ravine walking path is actually an old rail bed used to bring products up from the valley to the main line.

I hadn’t heard about this mining incident, which apparently occurred on the south side of the river, near the present-day High Level Bridge. After some googling, I found an interesting piece by the EdmontonJournal about it.

An interesting aspect of the article (which mostly focuses on the human tragedy angle) is this discussion of root cause:
A fatality inquiry found the men had died of smoke and gases released by the fire. The cause of the fire was unknown but it was suspected to have started in the engine house, where a light that was always on ignited oil rags. 
The inquiry’s jury censured the Strathcona Coal Company for not sinking another air shaft in the mine as required by the province. 
They also censured the provincial inspector for not insisting the other shaft be built. 
The jury recommended that the government require all mines that employ men underground to hire an outside watchman and expressed regret that the City of Strathcona had not responded to an earlier request from the fire chief for a hose wagon and necessary equipment.
So we have both a proximate cause (oily rags ignite) and root causes (company stored rags near ignition source, company did not monitor for fire at night or sink an extra air shaft, government looked the other way). It’s sad that this broad pattern of events remains a common one in occupational injury today.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, August 29, 2019

In Search of Professor Precarious fundraiser


Sessionals at MacEwan University celebrate winning greater rights.
A documentary film about precarious employment in post-secondary education has just launched a crowdfunding campaign.

In Search of Professor Precarious will take viewers into the lives of contract faculty, and tells their compelling stories. 

The film includes interviews with precarious contract faculty, permanent faculty, students, administrators, activists and experts. It also shows artists in action, an outdoor biology class on the shores of Nova Scotia, and the biggest higher education strike in Canadian history unfold.

The film makers have received support from National Film Board, unions OPSEU, CUPE and CUPE 3911, associations CAFA, FPSE, and ACIFA and faculty associations ULFA, AASUA and APTUO. They are seeking an additional $15,000 in donations to finish the film and cover the costs of both post-production (e.g., editing, sound mix, music) and develop promotional material.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Alberta Labour's 2018/19 Annual Report

A few months back, the Ministry of Labour’s 2018/19 annual report was released. This report represents the best window we have into the government’s work on making Alberta workplaces fair, safe and healthy be enforcing the labour laws enacted by government.

It is often difficult to track the resources the government devotes to enforcement of its labour laws. The annual report notes that 32 new employment standards staff were hired in 2018 as were 17 new occupational health and safety officers in March of 2019. Bo overall totals were provided.

Employment Standards

There was an 8% increase in employment standards complaints and a 24% increase in cases resolved. The result include net drops in the average delay in investigation (to only 90 days), resolution (to 155 days), complaints resolved within 180 days, and in the backlogged queue of complaints. And 64% of claims of less than $1500 in stolen wages were resolved through an immediate demand letter being sent. This is an impressive improvemet=nt.



The number of anonymous tips nearly doubled in 2018/18. The number of proactive inspections rose a bit, but is still below 2016/17 levels.


Overall, there seem to be some positive developments (I would guess related to additional staff resources being available). But, on average, workers are still going to wait 3 months before employment standards will even start the investigation. Missing from the report is an assessment of what percentage of stolen wages were recovered.

Occupational Health and Safety

There was about a 10% drop in OHS inspections when compared to the previous year but a huge increase (almost 50%) in orders written. There were also 479 tickets issued (157 to employers, the rest to employees). Fourteen employers also got hit with administrative penalties of up to $7500. No comparator data was provided.


Charges filed against employers for violations were down (16 cases this year versus 26 the previous year). Overall fines issues as a result of prosecution also fell from $4.18m to $2.16m).

There were 773 OHS complaints about harassment or violence at work (reflecting new provisions that came into force in 2018). There were also 52 complaints that workers had been discriminated against for exercising their OHS rights, of which 12 were upheld (some may still be pending).

Injuries

Some bad news here with injury rates on the rise.


The lost-time claim rate is up again with 1.46 LTCs per 100 person years worked. The target is 1.15.



The disabling injury rate is also up again, with 2.71 DIs per 100 person years worked. The target is 2.19. The overall person years worked was not provided so we can’t calculate how many injuries this actually is. This kind of slight of hand obscures the actual performance of the OHS system. 

At a guess (using 2017 data), I’d say there were about 28,000 accepted-lost time claims and 52,000 accepted disabling injury claims. These estimates exclude all unreported claims (maybe 70% of these injuries go un-reported). The key points being (1) there are a lot of injuries which (2) suggests the injury-prevention system remains a failure, something that (3) the government hides using measures like claims rates. None of that is new, it is just disappointing that four years of progressive government had basically zero impact.

There were 126 accepted fatalities in 2018, down from about 162 last year (no comparator provided). Fatalities are swingy so it is hard to know what explains this drop after several years of increases. It might reflect declining employment in dangerous industries? Or it might just be data noise.

Labour Relations

There were interesting changes in stats at the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The number of certification applications jumped for the second year in a row and have almost doubled since card check certification provisions were added.



There were aso 14 applications for first contract arbitrations. There was also a significant reduction in days lost to work stoppages. 



The report muses:
The low 2018 rate (measured per 1,000 employees) may have been influenced by legislative amendments in recent years that requires nearly 300 collective bargaining relationships to meet essential services requirements before a strike or lockout can legally occur. In no case did collective bargaining between parties affected by essential services enter formal mediation, which is mandatory before parties can get to a strike or lockout position. New first contract arbitration may also have diverted some disputes away from strikes and lockouts. (p.42).
I would agree with this analysis.

Conclusions

There were some notable improvements in performance over pervious years, specifically in the processing of Employment Standards complaints. This likely reflects the allocation of additional resources by the former New Democratic government. Overall ES performance is still not great (in that workers must often wait months for stolen wages). The absence of data on overall reclamation rates (wages owed versus recovered) suggests the results are poor.

OHS performance was a mixed bag. Fewer inspections, fewer prosecutions, and lower fines versus more orders. The increase in both the number of injuries and injury rates suggests there is much more to be done here. Resources likely remain a key issue, with hirings occurring at the end of the reporting year. A question for both OHS and ES is whether staffing levels will be maintained under the UCP government. I would bet numbers decline through attrition and a hiring freeze.

On the labour relations front, there are two main findings. First, card-check certification appears to be having the predicted effect (more certification applications). The UCP government is expected to eliminate card-check certification which, de facto, creates more opportunities for employers to illegally interfere in workers’ choice about whether to unionize or not. These numbers will likely decline next year and then sharply the year after.

Second, there is some indication that the essential services legislation enacted by the NDs in order to protect the public interest while giving public-sector workers the right to strike has (at least temporarily) actually retarded the ability of workers to strike. An interesting question is whether this was an accidental or intentional outcome of the ND's legislation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

More OHS violations at Athabasca University

Last week, I wrote about Athabasca University’s awful new OHS training. One positive outcome of staff outrage about the training is that they are now talking openly about AU’s hypocrisy around preaching workplace safety while not taking any action on it.

For example, I recently received a bunch of photos of a tripping hazard in the library that has gone unremediated for more than a year despite repeated complaints.


The library has a set of moveable book shelves. These save space by eliminating the need for permanent aisles between the stacks. When you need a book, you crank open space between two stacks and go get it (you can see the crank system in the picture above).


The shelves travel on metal rails embedded in the floor. The rest of the floor is carpeted. The carpet has been pulling up where it abuts the rails, creating a tripping hazard (see above). In a likely related phenomenon, elsewhere the carpeting is buckling (because it is too loose), which also creates a tripping hazard (see below).


This has been a long-term issue that staff flagged for action in the summer of 2018. While it is easy to dismiss things like tripping hazards as no big deal, falls account for about 20% of serious injuries in Alberta. The vast majority of these injuries are caused by falls on the same level. These are all caused by tripping hazards and are virtually all preventable.

Initially, AU’s response was to promise to glue the carpet down. Because the carpet was normally under the stacks, this could be done only one piece at a time. Because of the smell from the glue, the plan was to do it late on Fridays over a series of weeks so the smell could dissipate over the weekend.

This was a good response. Unfortunately, after a single section was fixed, work stopped for reasons unknown (possibly because the glue didn't work). Shortly thereafter, the lifted sections were duct taped down.


This hazard control strategy is likely not compliant with s. 9 of the OHS Code which requires employers to eliminate the hazard (rather than just slap a quick fix on). Not surprisingly, duct tape was not an effective fix and has since lifted.

Staff again raised the issue in November of 2018 but there was no further action. Fast forward t this year when a staff member almost tripped. This reflects that, when going into the stacks to retrieve a book, one’s eyes are on the books, not the floor. Another complaint was lodged. Facilities was notified but, other than the (bizarre) placement of an orange traffic cone (???), no further remediation has occurred.


This lame response to a well known and identified hazard is contrary to AU’s obligations under the OHS Act. How this hazard hasn't been identified in the required quarterly walk-around inspections of the worksite by the Joint OHS Committee is unclear. The likely answer is that the inspections aren't happening as required by s.197 of the OHS Code.

The OHS Act requires workers report hazards (done!) and then:
3(1) Every employer shall ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so, 
(f) that health and safety concerns raised by workers, supervisors, self-employed persons and the joint work site health and safety committee or health and safety representative are resolved in a timely manner, and 
Pretty clearly, AU has (once again) failed to meet its obligations under the OHS Act. So what are workers to do?

Well, they could complain again. Since multiple complaints have yielded no meaningful action, that is probably useless. This dynamic (complaints being ineffective resulting in fewer complaints) is actually a well established phenomenon in the study of employment rights. It reflects that workers aren’t stupid and can accurately calculate whether filing complaints are worth their time.

The staff could also refuse unsafe work, as is their right under the Act. Workers are often fearful that exercising their OHS rights will result in (illegal) retaliation. A 2016 study of 2000 Alberta workers found that, of the workers who faced unsafe work, only one third refused the unsafe work.

When non-refusers were ask why the didn’t refuse:
32% of non-refusers indicated they did not want to be known as a troublemaker and 14% indicated they specifically feared punishment for refusing unsafe work. Supervisor and coworker pressure to keep working was cited by 16% and 14% of non-refusers, respectively (p. 8).
When refusers were asked about their experiences of refusing, only 23.8% said the employer made the work safer. Again we see the rational calculation by workers: refusals entail significant risk and have a low prospect of success.

Not surprisingly, AU workers have not (yet) refused this unsafe work. An organized, group refusal would probably be the most effective approach here. If the group held firm, work would stop and an OHS officer would need o attend the worksite.

A less risky option would be for an employee to anonymously phone (1-866-415-8690) the government’s OHS inspectors or fill out an online complaint and report the noncompliance with the Act. This will generate a site visit (eventually), a compliance order and, several months from now, maybe even a remedy. A work refusal would likely get faster results.

I would guess the most likely outcome will be that workers will take no action, try to be careful and avoid the hazard, and, eventually, someone will get hurt. This reflects that there is very littletrust in senior administration at AU, particularly around health and safety issues (and for good reason).

The odds that AU will take action to remedy the hazard (e.g., call a carpet installer to fucking fix the problem or replace the flooring) is pretty slim. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, but there you go.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Athabasca U's new worker safety training is terrible

On June 1, 2018, changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act took effect. A key change was the requirement for employers with 20 or more workers to have an OHS program. The OHS program must include a safety orientation and training for workers (s.37(1)(g)).

The content of this training is not specified beyond the requirement in ss.3(1)(b) and 3(2) that workers must be aware of their rights and duties and of any health and safety issues arising from the work being conducted.

Athabasca University failed to comply with this training requirement and received a compliance order in late 2018. In late July of 2019 (i.e., 14 months late), the university rolled out its new OHS training. Basically, AU bought access to an online self-paced training product and demanded all employees complete it within 10 days.

Hilariously, the rollout by HR looked like a phishing attack. So, as they’ve been trained, many staff deleted the email unread, and IT immediately blocked access to the website. But at least we know the IT security training is working!

When things eventually shook out, I took the training offered by AU. It is basically a online powerpoint with 118 screens, a few simple activities, and a 10-question multiple-choice test at the end. It took me about 20 minutes to read everything and complete the test (10/10!).

There are numerous shortcomings with this training. Most obviously, this training lacks any applicability to most AU employees, with lengthy sections early on about due diligence (an employer topic, focused on reducing liability for injury) and hand tools and machinery (relevant to about 3 employees). Providing clearly irrelevant training is a sure-fire way to trigger learner disengagement. You’d think this is a dynamic Canada’s leader in distance education might be aware of.

Not surprisingly, I have heard multiple reports of people getting fed up and clicking through the slides as fast as possible and just doing the activities and tests based upon common sense. Given the generic and largely irrelevant nature of the content, I don’t imagine AU cares about this. This training is clearly about making AU minimally (and finally!) compliant with the OHS Act, rather than actually improving safety or giving workers useful information or skills.

There are several places where the training clearly blames the workers for injuries and prescribes injury-prevention techniques that completely ignore the root cause of injury and the hierarchy of controls. For example, the slide below (used under fair dealing provisions) notes that equipment can cause hand injuries but the most common cause is employee error (boredom, inattentiveness, distraction).



While it is easy to identify the proximate (i.e., immediate) cause of injury, to reduce injury we have to look at the root cause. Specifically, why are employees bored, distracted or inattentive? The answer here is found in the way the employer has designed the job to make it boring, overwhelming, or disengaging. But fixing the root cause (i.e., eliminating the hazard by designing better jobs) is way harder and more expensive than simply blaming the employees.

The training then goes on to say cuts and lacerations are among the most common injuries. “This is even true of secretaries, who can be cut by paper edges and punctured by staplers, scissors and thumbtacks.” Setting aside the anachronistic term for administrative assistants, suggesting “even secretaries” can get hurt is deeply insulting.

Administrative staff are some of the most at-risk for injuries due to the repetitive nature of their work (e.g., RSIs and other ergonomic-related injuries) and their relative lack of power (e.g., leading to harassment by coworkers). This part of the training was profoundly tone deaf to the realities of Athabasca University.

The training contains a number of elements that several staff have found objectionable. For example, the slide below shows a man forcing a female to photocopy her face (I think—that’s the consensus, anyways).



This is (1) a ridiculous example of violence that (2) both obscures and trivializes actual forms of harassment and violence faced by AU employees and that (3) several workers have found extremely triggering. Is this seriously the best imagery that a professional training organization could come up with?

Similarly, the section on workplace violence is headlined by this image:



Now, I expect that many AU employees have idly fantasized about doing this. But it is not representative of the actual issues faced by AU employees. The most likely kind of violence at AU is verbal and directed at front-line and support staff (who are mostly women). I’m not suggesting that physical violence should be ignored or that women can’t act violently. The point is that this cartoonish representation of violence trivializes the issue by showing us an uncommon and frankly unlikely example.

The training does touch on the issue of working alone, which is important, as half of AU 1100 employees work from home offices. It recommends some sort of check-in procedure. Alberta’s OHS Code actually requires more than that when workers work by themselves and cannot be seen or heard by people capable of rendering help (which is the case for many AU home workers). AU is, in fact, probably in violation of this requirement. The irony of flagging working alone as a risk but AU doing nothing about it is not lost on home workers.

Moving on, the OHS Act requires employers to make employees aware of both their rights and obligations. There is a fair bit of information on employee obligations but only really two screens that deal with employee OHS rights. One lists the rights and the other briefly discusses how employees go about refusing unsafe work.

I expect this meets the minimal requirements under the Code, but it really does little to empower workers. That makes sense since employers generally don't want workers asking questions like “why is the fire hose missing?” The desire to keep workers subservient also likely explains why there is no mention of unions in the training.

The training ends with three slides addressing injury and return to work. The role of AU’s various unions in return to work (as set out in policy) is absent in the training. Further, the training mentioned requirements for communication set out in Bill C-99. I have no idea what is in reference to.

The only thing I could find was some 1996 legislation in Ontario (Bill 99, the Workers’ Compensation Reform Act). This has no application in Alberta or to Athabasca University (although recent changes to Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act may be relevant). You’d kinda think a professional training firm or AU’s own OHS staff might have caught such a basic error?

The activities and test in the training were insulting and poorly designed. Consider this activity to test whether trainees have understood the section on personal protective equipment (PPE):



Even if you have never taken any OHS training, surely you could figure out which piece of PPE is best way to protect your HAND when you handle a hot item. (Hint: it is not the boot). The question itself is deeply insulting: a grade 2 student could answer this correctly so asking adults to do it tells them that the trainer thinks they are morons. As a way to self-test workers’ knowledge, this activity provides only the most superficial indication of whether workers understand the requirement for and use of PPE.

Similarly, the test questions include things like:
  • True or false: you should check the back seat for creepy dudes before getting in your car. 
  • If the ladder is missing a rung you should: (a) fix with duct tape, (b) step-over the missing rung carefully, or (c) get it fixed.
  • True or false: It’s cool to climb up shelves if you can't find a ladder.
These questions provide (at best) a superficial assessment of worker knowledge about their rights and how to handle safety issues. Any rando at the mall could pass this test without ever having seen the training. And, indeed, that is basically what is happening with employees—people are ignoring the training because it sucks.

No one really benefits from superficial compliance with the law. Workers remain at risk and the employer will see disengagement continue to rise (negatively affecting productivity). The lousy training is just the latest issue in HR with OHS and return to work. It is probably time to clean house and bring in new staff.

-- Bob Barnetson