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

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