Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Policy: Look Out Below

The government announced the results of a workplace safety inspection blitz in the commercial construction industry conducted this fall. Not unexpectedly, the results indicated widespread non-compliance with the OHS Code.

Of the 298 inspections (encompassing 146 companies and 73 work sites), inspectors found 214 violations. Thirty-nine stop work orders (27% of worksites) were issued for particularly dangerous situations. There were also 12 stop-use orders issued related to non-compliant scaffolding.

The inspections found major problems with fall protection. Among the violations noted were failure to provide protective gear, failure to provide a fall protection plan, lack of proper safeguards and scaffolding violations. All of these are employer responsibilities.

Minister Thomas Lukaszuk noted: “If there is no response, if we don’t see improvement on the work sites, then we will be implementing new and more creative and more aggressive measures by which we will curtail those numbers.”

This inspection blitz raises several interesting questions. First, why is this the first-ever safety inspection blitz in Alberta's history? Workers are killed or injured in droves each year. The only difference this year is that the government took political heat about it in the press. Should we conclude that worker injury and death only matter to the government when there is bad press?

Second, why would the minister wait to take more aggressive inspection and enforcement action? The academic literature is pretty clear: absent surveillance and enforcement, safety rules are routinely ignored. This inspection blitz provides more evidence that education and voluntary compliance are ineffective at protecting workers.

Third, why is the government threatening to ticket workers (as well as employers) for safety violations? The evidence here is that it is employers who can't seem to organize work in a safe manner.

Workers didn't fail to provide fall protection equipment or fall protection plans. Workers didn't fail to provide safe guards or provide scaffolding that was unsafe. In fact, workers would probably prefer to have safe worksites.

These are employer responsibiilities--ones that employers routinely evade because safety precautions slow down work and increase costs. It is cheaper to not provide these protections and hope no one gets hurt--because there are basically no consequences for the employer if they do.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 13, 2010

Research: Mesothelioma Reporting Rates

Three new studies raise some interesting questions about statistics regarding asbestos-related disease rates and compensation. The article “Surveillance of mesothelioma and workers’ compensation in British Columbia, Canada” broadly mirrors the results of studies in Alberta and Ontario.

The study examined reporting and compensation of mesothelioma in BC. Mesothelioma is an almost always fatal cancer that is clearly linked to asbestos exposure.

The study found that, between 1970 and 2005, 33% of BC cases of mesothelioma were compensated by the workers’ compensation board. Annually, the rate of compensation increased over time and was as high as 49% in 1999 and 2004. These rates of compensation are approximately half the rates in France (62%) and Australia (64%) notably lower than rates in Ontario (43%) and Alberta (42%). Gender, age, site of cancer and location of residence all were important variables in acceptance rates.

Under-compensation is important because accepted compensation claims are used to “count” workplace injuries and illnesses. Unaccepted cases of occupationally-related mesothelioma (normally caused by non-reporting) results in an under-estimation of exposure rates and of the hazardous nature of asbestos. This, in turn, results in greater externalizing of production costs onto workers, their families and the general medical system in the form of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Asbestos: Occupational or Environmental Hazard?

This weekend the newspaper featured an interesting story about asbestos. Following an apartment fire, residents have been evacuated while the damage is being fixed. This includes remediation of asbestos (which is common in older buildings)--a mineral fiber likely used to insulate or possible strengthen the structure of the building (hard to know at this point).

The story focuses on the plight of tenants who must find alternate accommodation for four months and how the insurance company covering the fire will not cover these costs. There is also some minor discussion of how various regulatory schemes seem to interact around the asbestos removal.

Asbestos and its dangers are the subject of many books, the most recent being Defending the indefensible by Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale. The key health effects of asbestos exposure include asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the chest and stomach wall lining). There may also be other asbestos-related illnesses (I recall reading something about colorectal cancer and asbestos but cannot find the source offhand).

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, despite governments enacting (ever lowering) occupational exposure limits for it. An interesting question this story raises is whether there is any real difference between an occupational hazard and an environmental hazard. The answer, according to McCulloch and Tweedale, is not really.

While occupational exposures to hazards such as asbestos tend to be in higher concentrations (thus the resulting diseases manifest themselves more frequently and more quickly), the mineral poses risks to everyone, particularly given its prevalence in the environment. This relationship is not confined to asbestos but seems to be broadly applicable across hazards.

The China Price details how coal mining and power generation in China, for example, entails both occupational and environmental effects as air and water are polluted. And, of course, the introduction of lead to gasoline first manifested itself as a hazard among workers and is now recognized as a source of lead contamination in the air, water and soil which is particularly dangerous to children.

Returning to asbestos, there is widespread disease in South Africa and Australia among miner’s families exposed to asbestos in the community. Workers have been treated as largely disposable by asbestos mining corporations who knew as early as 1918 about the risks but hide them for another 50-odd years and continue to evade compensating workers for their losses.

Canada is not immune to asbestos, with fibres brought home in workers’ clothes causing asbestos-related diseases among their families. But have a look around your own home if it pre-dates the 1970s—you’ll likely find asbestos in floor tiles as well as insulating pipes and ducts (this will look like fabric adhered to ductwork). Asbestos has also made its way (over time) into the food chain, paints, dishtowels, bank notes, tampons, insulation, piano felts, and cigarette filters (ironically asbestos and cigarette smoke interaction to increase the risk of lung cancer by 90 times over smoking alone).

The potential death toll from asbestos-related diseases is massive: 10,000 deaths per year in the US alone (as many as 100,000 annual across the globe). This takes no account of the declining quality of life of those afflicted with asbestos. And interesting local angle is this audio clip of a daughter discussing her father’s death by asbestosis in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 3, 2010

Policy: Farm Safety Gridlock

This morning, two farm workers were electrocuted, apparently because a grain auger they were moving struck an overhead power line. Occupational health and safety won’t be investigating because farm workers are excluded from the ambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

And the Workers’ Compensation Act.

And much of the Employment Standards Code.

And the Labour Relations Code.

After years of lobbying and judicial commentary that such exclusions are unconstitutional and/or without any good reason, the Alberta government has announced changes. Well, sort of.

In lieu of setting safety standards and enforcing them, industry and government reps will get together to figure out how to enhance farm safety training and education.

This all sounds nice. But it ignores that unsafe work is one manifestation of the broader conflicting interests of workers and employers. Unsafe work is usually faster and cheaper for employers than safe work—because unsafe work externalizes some costs of production onto employees in the form of workplace injuries.

This is, indeed, the reason why we have occupational health and safety laws in the first place. Education alone simply does not work because it (rather unrealistically) expects employers to act contrary to their own economic interests.

That employers have little appetite for regulation comes through quite clearly in the comments in the government’s recent consultation (mostly with employers).

“(Employers) warned the government to be careful not to create bigger problems in attempt to enhance health and safety.”

“Many (employers) commented that education is a better way to reduce farm accidents rather than regulations. A couple thought that voluntary education would be met with much less resistance and more acceptance.”

Such comments are hardly surprising and neither is the government’s focus on education rather than regulation. Education is relatively cheap. Education has limited impact upon farmers--who have traditionally supported the conservative government and who have, in turn, been rewarded through the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries and exclusion from the regulatory regime. And education sets up a “blame the worker” situation when “educated workers” get injured (conveniently ignoring it is the employer who determines what will be done, when, where and how).

What this suggests is that short of a court challenge about the exclusion of agricultural workers from virtually all of the basic workplace rights that every other worker has or a change in government, there is no prospect for meaningfully improving farm worker safety in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Research: Protracted WCB claims

Injured workers who have unusually protracted compensation claims are the subject of curiosity—in part because such claims can entail significant costs to the compensation system which are ultimately passed onto employers. Such inquiries are often couched in terms of “what is wrong with these workers?” The Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation has published an article examining this issue from a different perspective.

The ‘‘toxic dose’’ of system problems: Why some injured workers don’t return to work as expected” considers the effect of seeming innocuous bureaucratic problems on workers and a potential explanation. The authors posit workers’ experience of these systemic dysfunctions damages them in difficult to see ways which impede recovery and return to work. The study focuses on Ontario but has broad application as most workers’ compensation systems provide employers with incentives to provide modified work to injured workers in order to reduce time away from work.

The study found that return to work (RTW) systems and policies are premised upon inaccurate assumptions about how RTW actually operate. For example, the parties may not be communicating well and there may be conflicting motives among stakeholders for participation in RTW. These issues manifest themselves in seemingly mundane ways: “inappropriate modified work, injuries that are not reported, co-worker hostility, untimely and inappropriate referrals for retraining, physicians who are too busy for paperwork, workers’ compensation decision-makers who communicate inadequately with workers by mail and telephone” (p. 360). The seeming insignificance of these difficulties makes it difficult to “see” them as issues that can compromise the effectiveness of RTW programs.

Yet these systemic defects have important mental and physical consequences for injured workers. For example, “inadequately informed benefit entitlement decisions can result in denial of income and other support benefits to workers, who, can then, suffer financial and mental strain and deteriorating health conditions” (p. 360). This dynamic effectively overwhelms workers who already face injury-related difficulties. Herein lies the “toxic dose” administered by the system to injured workers and perhaps an important piece of explaining why some compensation claims generate seemingly unwarranted costs and delays.