Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Safety records and ticketing

It has been an interesting summer for occupational health and safety in Alberta. A Calgary Herald series highlighted ineffective workplace fatality prosecutions. And the provincial auditor general also issued a critical report. This was followed by turnover among senior OHS bureaucrats.

One of the government's responses was to resurrect the publication of employer injury records. Despite criticisms that the information released was misleading and incomplete, the government went ahead and put this information online.

In the wake of this, some old adversaries have popped up to spar. Former Minister of Employment and Immigration Clint Dunford praised the release of lost-time claim data on most Alberta employers. And former director of policy for the Alberta Federation of Labour Jason Foster (who is now my colleague) responded, with a fairly damning list of deficiencies in the new system.

Unable to get ahead of the safety debate, the government is now hauling out a second idea from 10 years ago: ticketing of OHS violations. This is a very interesting debate because of how ticketing can shape the perception of who is responsible for workplace safety.

A recent study in the British Journal of Criminology entitled "The Regulation of Corporate Violations: Punishment, Compliance, and the Blurring of Responsibility" examines ticketing in Ontario. Its conclusion is that:

"This regulatory shift has resulted in a diffusion of responsibility for safety risks as workers have increasingly become individually responsible for enforcing regulation as well as a target of regulation. In essence, workers are being transformed from a victim to a health and safety offender."

In effect, ticketing can serve to blame the victim. On the other hand, if employers are the focus of ticketing, then ticketing stands a good chance of altering their behaviour. This is particularly true of small employers for whom a fine would be a significant penalty. It also creates a penalty for violations that do not result in injuries. Presently, injury-violations are the only ones that trigger any penalty, and even these do so infrequently.

-- Bob Barnetson

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