Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Relaxing child labour laws in the US?

A colleague twigged me to an interesting story about child labour laws coming from the US. Newt Gingrich, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is proposing rolling back child labour laws. A variety of conservatives and business types have fallen into line. The following quotes capture the gist of the “argument”:
"How come it's OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?"

"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid."

"You give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office. I'll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work. Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness."

On the surface, these sorts of statements appeal to some voters. It is useful to clarify the assumptions they are premised upon:

1. Child labour is analogous to other activities children participate in.
2. The solution to family poverty is child labour.
3. Child labour is, on balance, a good experience for children.

Stated bluntly, there are, of course, some fairly clear problems with these assumptions. Employment differs from, say, glee club, in that employment is an economic, rather than educational, relationship. Few glee-club organizers face financial incentives to expose glee club members to unsafe work or excessive hours. Not so employers.

In fact, the exploitation of children by employers to drive down wages and production costs is why civilized countries enacted child labour laws in the first place a century ago. Suggesting employers won’t simply fall back into this behaviour is, at best, naïve and, at worst, intentionally deceptive.

Child labour is not the answer to family poverty. In the context of the United States, increasing adult employment (perhaps with adequate social supports) will do a better job of that. Further, government regulation is not the cause of trans-generational poverty—that is a byproduct of the functioning of capitalism whereby the (dis)advantaged maintain or increase their (dis)advantage over time.

And, finally, child labour is dangerous. While it may be possible to wander off into the abstract and conclude that, on balance, child labour is good, this ignores the reality of employing children.

Children are physiologically and intellectually immature. They are inexperienced and have difficulty avoiding dangers that experienced workers do. They tend to be grouped in dangerous occupations. They are less able to resist employer pressures around what they will do and how much they will be paid when compared to adult workers.

Relaxing child labour laws will both drive down wages and increase the number of children who are injured on the job. The attraction of low wages to employers is as understandable as employers’ willingness to maim and kill children to get low wages is reprehensible.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 19, 2011

Inter-generational conflict

The Edmonton Journal has an interesting story today about generational differences in income and prospects. Now, I’ve done my fair share of complaining about baby boomers in the workplace. And I’ve gone so far as to put a former colleague (who would not freakin’ retire) on the mailing list for a variety of senior lodges and leaving him job applications for WalMart and McDonalds mixed in with his paper work.

What resonated most with me in the Journal article was the need for two-income families to maintain a middle class lifestyle. This reflects wage stagnation over time for workers, while the cost of housing, energy and (most recently) food has increased.

The notion of generational conflict is certainly an interesting one. For those of you GenXers out there, the University of Toronto Press has recently published The making of a generation: Children of the 1970s in adulthood which largely validates much of what we’ve experienced.

This includes more education but tenuous labour market attachment, growth in economic inequity, delayed marriage and parenthood, work-life imbalance and a significant growth in low-distress mental health issues. Yet the culprit identified by the authors is not inter-generational conflict, but rather state social policy which facilitates externalizing the costs of social reproduction onto families.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 16, 2011

Don't google-up prospective employees

Alberta’s privacy commissioner is warning employers that vetting potential employees by using information found online may contravene Alberta’s privacy laws. You can view the very thoughtful and earnest advice provided here.

This is an interesting development but note that, out of the roughly 2 million employees in Alberta (tens of thousands of whom went through a hiring process last year), the privacy commission has one active complaint.

Now it could be that almost no employers google up potential applicants. But my sense is that this is a common practice. More likely, the lack of complaints reflects that potential employees are unlikely to know how their employer vetted them this way or that this may contravene their rights. And, as the vulnerable party in the employment relationship, are unlikely to complain even if they did know these two things.

We see a similar dynamic operating with Alberta’s child labour laws. Enforcement is complaint driven but the potential complainant (the child and the parents) basically don’t know their rights and don’t complaint, thus child labour is rampant (but hidden).

The privacy office has no real capacity to go out and proactively investigate instances of such violation. And they have no capacity to respond to any huge rush of complaints in a timely manner. The upshot is that Alberta employers can break this law with impunity.

This example is part of a broader problem with employment-related law in Alberta. The crux is that the government does not adequately resource (or politically support) effective enforcement of laws that constrain employer behaviour. This creates the veneer of state-protection but the reality is that these rights are hollow ones for workers with little labour market power (which is most of us).

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Impact of precarity on standard workers

I finally worked my way down to a paper I snagged this summer entitled “The hidden costs of contingency: Employers’ use of contingent workers and standard employees' outcomes”. This paper considers the impact of increasing employment precarity on workers in traditional jobs in the US by examining standard workers’ perceived job security, subjective attachment to their workplaces, earnings, and relationships with managers and coworkers.

The upshot is this:
There is strong evidence that employers' use of temporary workers is negatively associated with standard employees' perceived job security, subjective workplace attachment, and relationships with managers and co-workers. These negative relationships are found even after controlling for a large set of organizational, occupational, and individual variables. (p. 35)

While only statistically significant in the model predicting relationships with coworkers, the association between the use of on-call workers and standard employees‘ outcomes is positive across nearly all outcomes. This may mean that on-call workers serve as an institutionalized buffer within workplaces, signaling to standard employees that management is creating organizational slack to protect standard employees from market fluctuations. (pp. 35-36)

These results are important because they confirm the broadly held belief that the presence of a secondary labour force in a workplace can have unexpected and negative outcomes on core employees. But they also suggest that the manner in which an employer employs a peripheral labour force can play a mediating roll—using on-call workers may be a better option than temporary workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

An employer perspective on OHS in Alberta

Several times a month, I get a phone call or an email from an injured worker who wants to talk about their injury or something I’ve posted. This week I’ve been having a fascinating exchange with a employer-side safety professional and my correspondent has agreed to allow me to draw upon our discussion on the condition of anonymity.

I don’t think my correspondent and I agree on a number of issues but our conversation provides an insider perspective on OHS in Alberta that is enlightening to read. I’ve selectively quoted a portion of our conversation (using ellipses) and added in a few clarification (or suppressed identifying details) using brackets [ ]:
…For the next year we have 2 very minor injuries and some minor first aid incidents. … Then the unthinkable happens - an employee amputates [a body part].

…[T]he employer steps up to the plate and does everything possible to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation. …Now here's the part where it gets interesting.... Due to the introduction of the PIR [Partners in Injury Reduction] program (again great idea but horrifically flawed) most of our clients require all of our confirmed performance stats as well as all COR [Certificate of Recognition] information.

The way the program is structured [means] another serious incident …[means]… the COR [will be] suspended pending an external audit of the systems despite the fact that performance over the past 18 months during very rapid and unprepared growth has shown their safety program and performance is excellent.

… Now they are faced with [XXX] employees potentially not working in a market where skilled help is very difficult to maintain. So what happens with MOST business at this point or even before it - is they will cheat.

Big companies are notorious for it. They will maintain their own medical staff, pay for air ambulance privately, have employees sitting in an office essentially doing nothing so time loss is either hidden completely or vastly minimized though no meaningful work was ever performed. I have worked for midsized employers in the past who had a practice of discouraging staff from any WCB paperwork and they would pay them to sit at home and recover in exchange.

This is far more common than one would like to think but its because the systems implemented ostensibly to improve safety have not achieved a safer work environment but has created penalization if you do not have huge dollars to put into disability "management" which in truth is all to often just subterfuge at the ongoing expense of the worker. In the mean time the real issues with workplace safety continue to languish because they are not effectively addressed by these programs and are a distraction to the employer in regards to what is actually important.

So now back to this particular company - another challenge crops up on their horizon – [a long-term degenerative injury manifests itself at work]. He agrees he cannot tie this to any particular thing - it has happened before over the years. The company has both short and long term disability - very prudent when looking after employees I think. However as this all progresses three different Doctors try very hard to turn it into a WCB claim rather than put it onto the disability insurance.

Turns out in Alberta if you are on WCB you can jump the line for treatments because the WCB mandate is to reduce costs therefor push treatment through rapidly. No one will openly admit this but Doctors advocating for their patients will in these instances try to turn it into a WCB claim for quicker treatment. So now the Doctors have pushed WCB and WCB contacts the employer and tries to also force the claim.

Can you imagine what this does - they face yet another lost time claim that may never turn into a productive rehabilitated employee without pain - their WCB rates go through the roof - they have paid for disability insurance that is not allowed to be used as was intended and perhaps now the COR is suddenly at stake and therefore the business. The coming year begins to look very shaky indeed.

The natural thing for them to do now is fight every claim on every level legitimate or not. This employer has now been forced from the position of following all the rules to having to invest in the same tactics used by larger corporations and guess what - in the end is at the expense of the workers.

Let’s assume that everything my correspondent says is correct. It might not be (although it broadly jives with what workers tell me, which increases the credibility in my eyes) but let’s pretend and see where that takes us. My reaction is that this example highlights systemic issues in injury prevention and compensation that are exacerbated by the government’s PIR and the WCB’s experience rating program.

Setting aside the issue that injury prevention is basically ineffective in Alberta, it appears that (usually large) employers can and do hide injuries. They have two incentives to do this: first they minimize their WCB premiums (a claims record with few or no costs on it leads to experience rating and PIR premium rebates) and second they maintains their ability to secure work for companies that must have a COR.

Herein we see the putative goal of experience rating and PIR (i.e., injury reduction) actually triggering illegitimate claims management (academic research are identifies this dynamic). And the nature of this claims management disadvantages small- and medium-sized employers (who can’t afford to both pay for workers’ compensation and also set up a parallel system to circumvent it) as well as workers (who are pressured not to exercise their rights to compensation).

As I said, a fascinating glimpse into OHS from the perspective of small- and medium-sized employers. I may excerpt from further correspondence (we’ll see how it goes).

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 12, 2011

How the '70s can inform present protest movements

My colleague Ingo Schmidt has recently published an article entitled “There were alternatives: Lessons from efforts to advance beyond Keynesian and Neoliberal economic policies on the 1970s” in WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labour and Society.

This article examines the critique of capitalist structures that developed in the 1970s and how Neoliberalism became the “obvious” solution following the economic crises of the mid-‘70s.

The relevance of the article lies in its examination of how progressive movements failed to build an effective coalition to advance their agenda(s). This analysis may be of interest to those studying the various resistance movements that have developed in the wake of the 2008 recession.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More on the safety of young workers

I ran across a couple of more interesting articles about OHS and young workers while revising a paper. Both are from the International journal of occupational and environmental health.

In “The unique developmental considerations of youth related work injuries,” Sudhinaraset and Blum provide a useful outline the research on the physical and cognitive differences between youth and adult workers. These differences are often posited to contribute to the higher rate of injury typically seen among young workers.

In “A commentary on the unique development considerations of youth,” Breslin and Smith provide an interesting analysis of how the differences in the types of jobs youth hold account for a large portion of the differences in injury rates between adult and young workers. This raises the question of whether the cognitive differences between youth and adults (long posited to explain higher injury rates among youth) are really all that important given the labour market niche occupied by youth. Breslin and Smith also suggest that inexperience (which is distinct from, but often correlated with, age) may explain higher injury rates among young.

This commentary is important because it suggests that factors such as unfamiliarity with work tasks and unsafe work tasks may be more important that age-related cognitive differences in predicting injury. These generic factors are remediable through interventions (e.g., orientation, marketing campaigns, targeted inspection) that alter the context in which youth work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More child labour research from Ontario

Working through some revisions on an article, I ran across this 2010 study from the Canadian journal of public health. “Workplace experiences of young workers in Ontario” documents the hours, duties and supervision/training of workers between 14 and 19.

The crux (lifted from the abstract) is:
…a substantial number of youth are working at least 20 hours per week when school is in session, and many reported having worked after 11 pm on a night before school. Young workers engaged in a variety of hazardous tasks, including heavy lifting, using sharp objects, working with hot equipment, or working around falling objects.

A small subset (7.5%) of teens had suffered an injury at work that was severe enough to cause them to miss a day of school or work or require medical attention. … Although regular check-ins were common, many youth (38%) said they had worked at least part of the day without supervision. Young females were most likely to work without supervision or to work alone. (p.380)
This study adds to the growing body of evidence regarding the prevalence of child labour in Canada and the risks Canadian children are exposed to in the workplace.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 5, 2011

OHS and ES experiences of young Ontario workers

Alan Hall and colleagues from the University of Windsor have released a preliminary report into the incidence of health and safety and employment standards violations and reporting among young workers (mostly between 16 and 24) in Ontario. This report contains a number of interesting findings related to workplace injury:

“Sixty-eight of the workers reported that they had performed unsafe work tasks in their current job and over 7% said that they had done this often or very often.” (p.3)

“Among the reasons given for performing or accepting unsafe work, the most commonly reported were: 1) they thought they could avoid injury by being careful (30.2%); 2) they thought it was just part of the job (24.9%); and, 3) they were worried about other potential negative reactions by their employers or supervisors (20.6%).” (p.4)

“With respect to injuries causing time off work, 87.5 % reported that they had never been injured, while 8.3 % cited one injury, 2.1 % two injuries and 2.1 % more than two. When asked if all or some of these injuries were reported officially to the Workplace Safety insurance Board, 62% of the workers (N= 27) indicate that one or more of their injuries was never reported even though the injury was serious enough to miss work.” (p.5)

There were also some interesting items related to employment standards:

The 439 respondents “reported 1129 violations across eleven different employment standards. … it is more than likely that this number significantly underestimates the actual number of violations, in as much as many workers have expressed to us that the category “three or more times” failed to capture many situations where the violations were routine and sometimes daily.” (p.8)

“Although the experience of violations is relatively widespread among the respondents, and some respondents have experienced multiple violations of several different standards, most workers with violations (65%) have never filed a complaint.” (p.9)

“With the exception of the minimum wage where 65% of the respondents answered correctly, only a small minority of the workers knew the other standards.” (p.10)

While only a preliminary report, the results suggest widespread noncompliance with statutory requirements. It also suggests that there are important differences between OHS and ES compliance.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 2, 2011

Forget me not

This summer I picked up a copy of Forget Me Not. This book is published by Threads of Life, an organization that helps families of workers killed on the job.

It contains about 20 stories of how workplace fatalities (or impending fatalities with a workplace cause) have affected the lives of family members left behind. These stories are a useful corrective to the transitory way the media typically handle fatalities.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Patrick Clayton fall out continues...

One of the more interesting items that has emerged in the wake of Patrick Clayton’s sentencing for taking hostages at the WCB in 2009 is the story of Nicole Ferguson.

Ferguson was a WCB employee who fled from Clayton and hid during the hostage taking. She subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder. In the radio interview she did this morning (available at the link above), she indicated she suffered from anxiety before the hostage taking; anxiety increases the likelihood of developing PTSD.

The short version of her story is that her employment was terminated by the WCB this June. Ferguson states she believes she was terminated because of her condition. Obviously we don’t know all of the facts and the WCB has declined to discuss her termination, citing concerns about Ferguson’s privacy.

The only comment I can find is this one which suggests the WCB tried to accommodate her but felt it had reached the point of undue hardship:

A WCB spokeswoman would not discuss the details of Ferguson's departure from the WCB because of privacy reasons, but said the board prides itself on a flexible work environment.

"As an employer, we make every possible effort to accommodate work restrictions and needs," Marcela Matthew said. "We take great pride in that."

However, Matthew said those efforts do not always end successfully. "For example, if someone can't do office work, our options may be limited."

How that jives with Ferguson's statement that "My supervisor told me that if I was seen to be crying at my desk, I would be sent home. I was told because I wasn't smiley and happy that I was a disgrace." is unclear.

One of the more interesting (and unanswered) questions is whether Ferguson filed a compensation claim (and whether the WCB, as her employer, also reported the injury). The traumatic events she witnessed that triggered her condition seem to fit the narrow circumstances in which the Alberta WCB would accept a psychological injury claim.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Precariat

Guy Standing has published a new book, The Precariat, in which he describes the process of labour casualization and the potential political consequences of it.

This book echos much of what has been written on the topic of precarious labour over the past 10 years in Canada, in particular by Leah Vosko. Below is a video David Doorey posted on his blog which gives us a view inside precarious work in Britain.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 28, 2011

Poisoned chalice: Does compensation worsen injury?

One of the more intriguing notions about workers’ compensation is that the compensation process itself may exacerbate or be an independent source of injury. In this idea, we see a broadening of the discussion about why some injured workers have a bad outcome—a discussion presently dominated by accusations of moral hazard and malingering. In Canada, Katherine Lippel’s work in this area is particularly notable.

The Melbourne University Law Review published “Poisoned chalice? A critical analysis of the evidence linking personal injury compensation processes with adverse health outcomes”. This article examines the research into the questions of whether those receiving injury compensation recover more slowly and have worse long-term health outcomes than those not receive such benefits.

While there is significant evidence that suggests a negative correlation between health outcomes and compensation (i.e., those who are compensated do worse), the authors highlight a number of methodological weaknesses in typical approaches to this issue. These weaknesses do not necessarily refute the idea of a negative correlation but they do suggest the power of the correlation may be overstated and that important question of why this dynamic occurs is unclear.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Stigmatizing injured workers

I was quoted in the Sun today about Patrick Clayton’s sentencing. Most of my comment had to do with the stigma that attaches to injured workers.

Stigma was a hot topic at the Research Action Alliance on the Consequences of Workplace Injuries (RAACWI) symposium I was at last week. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) was in attendance to discuss efforts they have made to reduce the stigmatization of injured workers.

This included a brochure and some in-house training. The reception they got was quite mixed. Many were excited (or at least relieved) to see that the WSIB was prepared to admit to stigmatization, while others didn’t think these first steps were very significant (to put it mildly).

Right before heading to Toronto, I ran across a pre-publication version of a new study on the stigmatization of injured workers on Ontario. “The Nature and Impact of Stigma Towards Injured Workers” was published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation and sought to determine “how stigma is exhibited and perpetuated, and the impact that stigma has upon injured workers” (p.5).

Stereotyping (e.g., injured workers are playing the system), unethical treatment (e.g., discrimination, presumption of guilt triggering investigations), and maltreatment (e.g., lack of accommodation) were all important dimensions of stigmatization.

The effect of stigmatization were felt at work and at home. Particularly compelling is the discussion of how personal relationships and roles changed in a negative way as a result of stigmatization and how this affected the workers’ mental health. “Not only is stigma perpetuated and reinforced by individuals and organizations, it is also internalized in the form of self stigma as injured workers develop a sense of shame and diminished self-esteem” (p. 10).

While this research is not directly on point to the Patrick Clayton hostage taking (and isn’t intended to justify or excuse his actions—so hold off on the outraged emails please), it does provide some useful background to understand the frustration often expressed by injured workers towards “the system”. It also highlights one path forwards in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Impaired driving bad; workplace injury... ?

The government of Alberta has proposed tough, new rules around drunk driving. These include automatic, multi-day license suspensions and car seizures with (effectively) no appeal as the suspensions would be over before the appeal could be heard. Paula Simons has a thoughtful critique of this program.

According to Minister of Solicitor General and Public Security Jonathan Denis, “Alberta’s approach targets those most likely to repeatedly drive drunk. It’s about changing driver behaviour through enforcing tougher sanctions.”

The rationale for these changes include the injury toll from drunk driving. In 2010, there were 96 fatalities and 1384 injuries resulting from drinking and driving in Alberta.

My question is why target drinking and driving for new measures instead of, say, workplace safety? While certainly impaired driving is bad and the injury toll is concerning, it can’t hold a candle to the injury stats in Alberta workplaces.

In 2010, there were 46,000 disabling injury claims (serious injuries were a worker could not do their job the next day) accepted by the WCB. This includes some 570,000 days lost from work. If you were to include all forms of workplace injury, the actual number of workplace injuries in Alberta would be closer to half a million annually.

The fatality data is a bit confusing but the 136 fatalities in 2010 reported here seems to be about right (accepting that there is significant underreporting for occupational disease). The upward trend-line in raw numbers and that fatalities appear to broadly track economic activity are both notable.

So why come down hard on impaired drivers?

One factor may be that extra punishment for drunk drivers is administratively easy and basically cost neutral. There is already an effective enforcement system in place, which will simply be granted extra powers to punish violators. In fact, if the police begin levying administrative fines instead of laying charges, this could result in a net reduction in court costs. This would not be the case for increasing enforcement of OHS rules. This would require many more inspectors and entail significant additional costs.

A second factor is that drunk drivers are already social pariahs and have no organized political lobby. The same cannot be said of employers who injure and kill workers—those employers are a powerful group in Alberta politics. And rolling out a system of administrative fines would be a significant change that they have resisted each time it has been discussed over the past 10 years.

It will be interesting to see if the government actually creates a meaningful enforcement system for workplace injuries over the next year. Based on the past 10 years of inactivity, I’m not holding my breath.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hiding injuries and blaming workers

I'm just back from an injured worker symposium in Toronto. It was a fantastic conference (more on it later this week). Below is the presentation I gave last Friday.

Hiding Injuries and Blaming the Worker in Alberta
Research Action Alliance on the Consequences of Workplace Injury
2011 Symposium on the Consequences of Workplace Injury, 18 November 2011
Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor,
Labour Relations, Athabasca University

Thank you for inviting me to speak today about workplace injury in Alberta. I’m Bob, I’m a prof at Athabasca University and I’d like to talk to you today about two things. The first is systemic under-reporting of injury by the government. And the second is the tendency of the government of Alberta to blame workers for their injuries. Those two trends are important because they dampen the ability of workers to pressure employers and the government for safer workplaces.

Counting Injuries
Like many jurisdictions, Alberta counts injuries. The measures include the occurrence of time-loss injuries (where you can’t go to work the next day) and disabling injuries (can’t do your job the next day). These measures are reported as rates: X injuries per 100 person years worked. Expressing injuries as a rate is useful: it controls for changes in the size of the workforce, so numbers are comparable across time.

That said, expressing injury as a rate also obscures the actual number of injuries. So, for example, saying that we had “3.09 disabling injury per 100 person years worked” sounds a lot better than saying “this year 53,000 Albertans were injured so badly they couldn’t do their job the next day”. In effect, the way injuries are reported in Alberta makes workplaces sound safer than they actually are.

More concerning, though, is that Alberta recognizes only 1 out of every 10 injuries. An example is the easiest way to show this. In 2009, Alberta reported 28,688 lost-time injuries and 24,625 modified-work injuries for a total of 53,313 disabling-injury claims.

These 53,000 disabling injuries are all of the injuries Alberta officially “counts” when it talks about injuries. This number excludes the 95,854 medical-aid claims that Alberta has data on—injuries where a trip to the doctor or rehab was required. Adding in these numbers, we see the real number of injuries triple to 149,167.

But, again, that’s not the whole story.

We need to adjust for the 13% of the workforce that wasn’t covered by workers’ compensation—so the real number of injuries jumps to 171,456. And we need to adjust for the 40% of injuries that are not reported—so the number jumps again to 285,760.
But we’re still not done.

The number of minor injuries (those that don’t require reporting) and the number of occupational diseases (where under-reporting appears to be massive) is unclear. But an educated guess would be a further doubling of the total to roughly 500,000 injuries a year. In a workforce of about 2 million.

The discrepancy between the number of injuries the government talks about and the number of actual injuries tells us two important things:

1. Injuries are socially constructed. Alberta talks about only the most serious injuries. This creates the impression that workplaces are safer than they are.

2. Alberta’s occupational health and safety system simply does not work. No reasonable person could conclude Alberta’s health and safety system works when half a million injuries occur every year.

It is not clear that systematic underreporting is a conscious strategy by the government. But I expect both bureaucrats and politicians are aware that under-reporting helps limit the effectiveness of worker efforts to increase government enforcement activity.

Blaming Workers
The other things I wanted to talk about today is blaming. Alberta emphasizes education as its primary means of injury prevention. And, since 1985, Alberta has increasingly blamed workers for their injuries in their educational material. In 2008, Alberta launched its “Bloody Lucky” workplace safety campaign. This campaign is aimed at young workers and centres on six videos that dramatize gory injuries. They are similar to videos developed in other jurisdictions except there is greater emphasis on worker carelessness and the employer’s role in injury prevention is largely absent. Let’s look at a representative video now.

The first reaction of most lay people when they see this video is “stupid worker” (which, coincidentally, was the title of Alberta’s 2005 worker safety campaign). And you can see why people think the worker was to blame. She wore dodgy footwear, she got on a rickety ladder, she reached too far, and she fell. Stupid worker.

But what was the root cause of the worker’s injury?

The root cause was her employer arranged the workplace unsafely. Specifically, stock was stored in a manner such that she couldn’t safely retrieve it. The merchandise was placed too high and unstably stacked. The ladder provided was rickety and the light fixture was unguarded.

None of these factors are within the control of the worker. The worker’s shoes did contribute to her fall, but only because the stock retrieval system was poorly designed. Further, it’s unclear, in a shoe store, whether her employer would have consented to her wearing sensible shoes with a ladder-safe tread.

Yes, she could have refused work. But she likely would have been canned for that. Her employer is the one who is to blame here.

This video (and other government material) tells us that injuries are the result of workers making poor choices. While again it is unclear that blaming workers is an intentional strategy by the government, the careless worker narratives suggests that additional regulatory activity wouldn’t improve matters. In the words of the former-premier, “You can’t legislate common sense.”

The upshot of systemic under-reporting and blaming workers is that the government reduces the ability of workers to pressure for improved regulations or even effective enforcement of existing regulations. Notionally, there are simple fixes available: Alberta could report injury numbers more honestly and stop blaming workers for injuries.

But Alberta has proven reluctant to do so. My sense is that the political costs of an about-face—to both senior civil servants and politicians—will be high. Consequently, collaborative approaches in Alberta (i.e., working with government and industry) have a long history of very, very modest success.

By contrast, highlighting the true number of injuries and the ineffectiveness of enforcement have triggered more enforcement activity. Whether such a conflict-oriented approach is the most effective long-term strategy is hard to say. But, absent willingness by the government to alter its behaviour, a conflict-oriented approach is likely to continue.

For this reason, research in Alberta over the next several years will focus on documenting the prevalence and consequences of workplace injury in Alberta—hopefully this research will provide advocates with some political leverage. Of particular interest is the injury of child and adolescent workers, the interaction between worker mobility and workplace injury, and extending research done in Ontario and Quebec regarding how the operation of workers’ compensation affects, and perhaps exacerbates, workplace injuries.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Course in Workplace Injury

Athabasca University has opened a new course addressing workplace injury. IDRL 408: Workplace Injury is a three-credit senior course that builds upon existing offerings in injury prevention (IDRL 308) and injury compensation and disability management (HRMT 323).

IDRL 408 provides an in-depth examination of the political economy of workplace injury, both in Canada and in the developing world. You will engage directly with the academic literature on workplace injury and undertake scholarly writing, including a book review and literature review. This course comprises four units.

Unit 1 Workplace Injury and Precarious Work
Unit 1 will examine the political economy of Canadian workplace injury through the lens of precarious employment.

Unit 2 Occupational Disease and Injury Recognition
Unit 2 will deepen our understanding of the political economy of workplace injury by examining the politics of injury recognition and occupational disease.

Unit 3 Manufacturing Doubt: Science and Politics
Unit 3 will examine how corporations have undermined injury recognition and occupational health and safety (OHS) regulation through the manipulation of science, exposure levels, and enforcement.

Unit 4 The Global Economy and OHS
Unit 4 will examine workplace injury in Chinese manufacturing and power generation injuries.

In the next few months, we will be rolling out a mixture of major revisions and new courses. The new courses will include HRMT 300 (Human Resource Planning) as well as EDUC/HRMT 3XX (Program Planning).

The major revisions include LGST 310/IDRL 309 (Human Rights, the Charter and Labour Relations) as well as HRMT 323 (Injury Compensation and Disability Management).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Naming unsafe employers

One way to pressure employers to comply with the law is to publicly name them. This allows workers to know if an employer is unsafe. It also tells prospective customers about whether an employer operates safely or not. All told, a fairly low-cost enforcement mechanism.

I've dropped this idea into several interviews I've done this week but so far no one has really picked up the idea. I was on David Doorey's blog this afternoon and see that Ontario has a bad employer's list for its employment standards violators.

This seems like an easily adopted idea in Alberta: every employer who is inspected and is found in violation of the OHS Code goes up on the wall of shame for a month or two. There is precedent for this. Alberta Health Services posts restaurant inspection reports for the Edmonton areas on line.

Surely whether an employer provides fall protection is as important as whether the water in your favourite eatery's the taps is hot enough. And surely inspection reports could be ported across from the government's safety database to the web quite easily.

-- Bob Barnetson

Safety violations and ticketing

Workplace safety continues to be in the news this week. Yesterday, the government released the results of its residential construction site safety blitz. The majority of workplaces had safety violations. The 387 employers inspected attracted 394 orders, including 90 stop work/use orders suggesting there was imminent danger. A lack of fall protection was the biggest issue.

The Edmonton Journal notes that “The government has not said how many of the infractions resulted in fines or other penalties.” My guess is that there will be no penalties assessed beyond the stop-work/use orders. In Alberta, prosecutions are reserved for instances where employers are egregiously negligent and end up killing a worker. Just breaking the law doesn’t attract any meaningful sanction.

There is nothing really surprising here—previous blitzes have demonstrated that there is widespread non-compliance with workplace safety laws even after the government tells employers it is coming out to do an industry blitz. My sense is that most employers don’t care what the rules are and the stats suggest employers basically can’t be trusted to run safe worksites.

In the aftermath of the report (and kudos to the government for releasing it), the government is making some changes. They are hiring more inspectors (although this has been planned for years and will have only a marginal impact) and they are doing more after-hours inspections. The government is also musing about allowing inspectors to issue tickets when they see an infraction.

On CBC AM this morning, Minister Hancock was careful not to promise anything specific on ticketing. The government is going to look into ticketing, he said. While this is encouraging, we’ve heard this before.

The government has been “looking into ticketing” since the OHS Act was changed back in 2002 (or maybe 2004—I can’t recall offhand) to allow for administrative penalties (i.e., tickets). The only thing that needs to happen is cabinet needs to enact regulations specifying how fines will work—regulations that must be sitting in some bureaucrat's drawer down in the Labour Building. After a decade of sitting on their hands, I’m doubtful the government has the stones to do anything on this front, but I hope I’m wrong.

An interesting wrinkle in the ticketing discussion is whether only employers should be subject of ticketing (as they control the worksite) or whether workers should also get fined. I’m not keen on worker fines—workers mostly do as they are told. The availability and use of safety equipment is up to the employer. There is also concern that employers will use the threat of fines to (further) suppress injury reporting (e.g., “you know, if you report this injury, you’re gonna get a ticket…”).

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 7, 2011

Child labour, workers' comp and safety

An interesting day in the news. The trial of accused Alberta WCB hostage taker Patrick Clayton started this morning and Clayton plead guilty to multiple counts.

The Edmonton Journal published a short piece on child labour this morning. This piece has been appearing in a number of newspapers.

And I was on Edmonton AM this morning chatting about workplace injury and the failure of Alberta's occupational health and safety system. You can listen to the clip here. Next week I'm off to Toronto to discuss the consequences of workplace injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, October 31, 2011

Child labour and chocolate

There is an interesting BBC documentary that examines the role of child labour in the making of chocolate. Chocolate: The Bitter Truth examines the chocolate industry's (lack of) progress at eradicating child labour and slavery in the production of cocoa after signing a 2001 accord to eliminate it.

According to the documentary, "Over 40% of the world's cocoa is sourced from the west African region of Cote d'Ivoire, and the UN estimates that there are around 15,000 children working on the region's cocoa farms. These include children as young as eight years old, many from neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, who are trafficked across borders and used as forced labour."

The full number of child workers in the entire African cocoa industry is more like 284,000. There is an interesting discussion regarding the behaviour of major chocolate manufacturers towards the use of child labour in their supply chain.

Happy Hallowe'en... .

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 20, 2011

World justice Project Rule of Law Index

The World Justice Project has released its 2011 Rule of Law Index. This is a quantitative assessment of the degree to which countries adhere (in practice) to the rule of law.

Canada generally does well, but “discrimination against immigrants and the poor remains a source of concern” as well as “access to civil justice”. The latter issue appears to centre on the cost of legal representations and lengthy delays in civil cases.

Canada’s country profile makes for interesting reading. Areas of relative weakness include fundamental labour rights, equal treatment and absence of discrimination, access to legal counsel and the civil courts, and official information requested is available.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Immigrant workers and injury

Agnieszka Kosny and seven co-authors have recently published a study in Ethnicity and Health examining the rate at which immigrants report work-place injuries. “Delicate dances: Immigrant workers’ experiences of injury reporting and claim filing” reveals few immigrant workers who were injured on the job filed timely workers’ compensation complaints. Further, injured immigrant workers often found their employers steered them wrong, discouraging claims, mis-informing workers of their rights, and offering time off instead.

The relevance of this article to Alberta has to do with the large number of temporary foreign workers currently employed here (about 50,000 with numbers expected to rise). Temporary foreign workers share many characteristics of immigrant workers but are further vulnerable because they have no job mobility. That is to say, they are extremely reliant upon their employer for their continued residency in Canada.

This article provides support for anecdotal reports of foreign workers being misled or mistreated following a workplace injury. One consequence of various claim suppression tactics is that the cost of a workplace injury is transferred from the employer to the worker. With temporary foreign workers, there is also a geographic dimension to this transfer as some costs of injury are shifted from Canada to the workers’ home country.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

OHS Regulation Making: Integrative or Distributive?

A recent article by Mark Thompson in the International Journal of Contemporary Economics and Administrative Sciences examines the process by which occupational health and safety rules are made. “Who makes the rules? Establishing occupational health and safety regulations” considers two cases of rule-making around ergonomics.

The important aspect of Thompson’s analysis is his conclusion that OHS rule-making, while often described as an integrative process (i.e., where employers and workers cooperate to increase safety), is (at least sometimes) a distributive process (i.e., a process marked by conflicting interests). That is to say, attempting to portray OHS as above or outside of the tensions inherent in a capitalist system creates an unrealistic view of injury prevention regulation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Migrant workers in the tar sands

An interesting article was published a few weeks back in Just Labour. Nelson Ferguson’s “From coal pits to tar sands: Labour migration between an Atlantic Canadian region and the Athabasca oil sands” is an ethnography examining the “profound social and economic impacts on the communities of Industrial Cape Breton, while such mobile workers find themselves in a form of work organization which is increasingly precarious and contingent.”

Ferguson notes how Cape Breton is becoming an increasingly remittance-based economy supported by long-distance commuters. He notes the limited economic options many workers have and the impact of this arrangement on the personal lives of workers and their families. He also notes the community impact, such as the loss of a volunteer fire department because a large portion of the volunteer base is unavailable. At the same time, this phenomenon appears to be stabilizing population in the region, which is known for out-migration.

But the stabilizing effect depends upon the continued availability of migrant work opportunities. The adoption of precarious forms of work within the tar sands means this pattern is unstable and such workers can be without employment during an economic downturn. Further, contingent workers were forced to accept some of the costs of their contingency as employers discontinued travel funding.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, October 3, 2011

Consumer safety research expands

The boundary between occupational and environmental health issues as very blurry. Often workers are the first group intensively exposed to chemicals and thus occupational injuries are often a harbinger of future environmental or consumer health issues.

As detailed in David Michael's book Doubt is their Product, corporations have made great efforts to thwart occupational and environmental health science over the years. Often the state has colluded with these efforts, asbestos being a notable Canadian example.

The Government of Canada has just announced that it will be testing about 500 substances already in consumer products over the next five years to assess their health impact. Why these substances weren’t tested prior to their introduction into consumer items remains an open question.

While this effort has earned praise from some environmental groups, the government has also taken criticism that it is “dragging its feet in terms of assessing substances that are being released into the environment by the oil and gas industry and expanding oilsands production.”

Again, it appears that workers (and those living downstream of the tarsands) will be the canaries in the coalmine. Hopefully the government will not assist industry in hiding harmful effects as they did in the case of asbestos.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Unions: Assets or Liabilities?

After two weeks with my head in transcripts of the legislative assembly, I’ve come up for air to find that the Canadian Association of Financial Officers (a union) has issued a report examining “whether unions are still the same positive engine for social change that they once were” (p. 2).

There is nothing particularly Earth-shattering in this report, reflecting its fairly mainstream assumptions about industrial relations and the economy. But it does provide a useful (and current) rebuttal to rightist claims that trade unions are somehow holding back Canada’s economic performance.

The most useful point made this report is that the current “system” of worker rights and standards is not fixed. Rather, the “system” reflects a series of historical contingencies—accommodations made by employers and the state in exchange for stability and legitimacy—facilitated by workers (via unions) exerting political and economic.

Absent trade unions, the powerful would have significantly greater opportunity to alter working conditions we now deem to be “normal” in a manner that would advantage the wealthy and disadvantage most workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Another safety blitz...

Yesterday, the government announced its fourth inspection blitz of the past year or so, this time in residential construction. The non-unionized residential construction sector is a good target. The government’s own stats show that the 1700 inspections performed at residential constructions sites in 2010 resulted in about 1000 orders being issued.

This announcement (that you can view here) has several interesting features. The first is that it was announced. Critics suggest that telling employers inspectors are coming will skew the results and make things look better than they are. Further, when the heat is off, employers will just return to their old habits. The Minister had no meaningful response to this critique, likely reflecting that it is spot on.

The second is the potential political ramifications. If the results of this blitz are as bad as most people expect them to be, it will be hard for the government to justify continued kid-glove enforcement. Such willful misconduct will reduce the credibility of claims that “we need to educate employers to improve safety”.

The third is that the Minister has announced he is working on changes to allow for the ticketing of both employers and workers. He plans to introduce these changes this spring. Ticketing has been possible since a 2002 amendment to the Act, but the government has never enacted regulations allowing for it to happen. Given the PC leadership race and cabinet shuffle that will follow, I wonder whether these changes to the OHS Regulation will ever see the light of day. You can give you input here, though.

The fourth is that the public is being encouraged to report unsafe work (and indeed there is now an iPhone app, so we know the government is serious…). The question is the speed at which inspectors will respond. The 2010 Auditor General’s report discussed response times of 18 days with an average of 86 days required to gain compliance.

The cheeky CBC reporter who turned in a worksite just blocks from the news conference where workers were without fall protection managed to get an immediate stop-work order issued. But will all reports get same-day service? And will this continue beyond the period of the blitz?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 9, 2011

Labour code review: Do as I say, not as I do?

Over the past few weeks, there has been significant chatter about a quiet review of Alberta’s labour laws related to the construction sector. Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk has appointed two lawyers to look into suggestions for change proposed by a group of construction sector interests, including Merit Contractors and CLAC (the Christian Labour Association of Canada).

There is a solid rebuttal of Merit’s rationale for these changes and this review by the AFL. The response by Merit fails to address the points raised by McGowan.

An important question raised by this review is why can a small employer group get a review done upon request, while a 24,000 name union petition for a review from 2007 remains ignored?

Among the changes proposed by Merit are legislative restrictions that would prohibit unions from using member dues for political activities without the prior consent of their members. The basis for this recommendation is unclear. Is this a rampant problem? Do political contributions by interest groups somehow harm the workings of democracy?

If there is any real reason for this recommendation, one might ask why Merit doesn’t lead by example? Insight into Government reports that Merit contractors may be the heaviest contributor to the progressive conservative leadership campaigns now underway.

Merit Contractors shows up as giving between $15,000 and $30,000 to Morton, between $10,000 and $19,999 to Mar, and between $10,000 and $30,000 to Redford.

Whatever the reasons for this seemingly “do as I say, not as I do” recommendation, perhaps this practice provides some insight into the greater responsiveness of the government to employers than to workers?

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Two-tiered minimum wage hypocrisy?

Today is the first day of Alberta's two-tiered minimum wage. Most workers are eligible for a $9.40/hr minimum wage, while workers who regularly serve alcohol as part of their duties are eligible for a $9.05/hr wage. Alcohol servers will not see their minimum wage further increase until the regular minimum wage reached $10.05, at which point, both wages will move up in concert.

The rationale for this two-tier wage (which was rejected by the all-party Standing Committee on the Economy eight-months earlier) provided by the Minister in June was:
“Having a different minimum wage for liquor servers recognizes that these individuals earn a significant part of their income from tips,” Lukaszuk said. “It will also give business owners greater flexibility in the way they pay other staff.”
The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association lobbied for this change and asserted:
“This acknowledges the true fact that liquor servers are not in fact minimum wage earners. It enables the employer, as far as his labour budget, he can devote that money to much more difficult to retain back-of-house staff.”
So it is interesting to review the FAQ the government posted about the minimum wage change. It notes:
6. If an employee normally serves liquor, but does not receive tips, is the employee entitled to the general minimum wage of $9.40 an hour?

No. When an employee normally serves liquor directly to customers, the liquor server rate of $9.05 per hour applies.
There are two reasons a server might end up tipless. The server could do a poor job and does not get tipped. Or the employer disallows tipping or has a tipping policy (e.g., a dine-and-dash fund) that results in a server earning no tips.

I'm hard pressed to think of any server who is so terrible that they never receive a tip. The restaurant culture in Alberta is one where not leaving a tip is a rare event.

That said, regardless of the reason for being tipless, the government's answer on the FAQ runs contrary to the basic rationale for a two-tier wage: that servers gain significant amounts of income from tipping. Where this is not the case, shouldn't tipless servers be entitled to the same minimum wage as every other worker?

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CBC finds construction safety violations

An "investigation" by the CBC (i.e., they drove around a bit) of construction sites in Alberta has uncovered multiple incidences of safety violations, particularly around fall protection.

This is hardly groundbreaking news. You can see violations on almost every construction site you wander past. For example, I snapped the picture above from my front porch. It shows no fall protection despite the workers being at least 5 meters off the ground. They have nailed a board at their feet, which is actually a tripping hazard. And the ground below (out of the shot) is covered with debris that would exacerbate any injury sustained from a fall.

This picture is the norm. I could take 10 more like it everytime I go for a bike ride. I could call this in. But it would take up to 18 days for an inspector to come out (this crew was in and out in 14 hours) and an average of 86 days to get compliance from the company. Why would anyone bother with that process?

The reason the CBC investigation is important is because is again raises the issue of why the government does not conduct a meaningful number of random safety inspections given such clear evidence of widespread noncompliance with the law? The government never engages with this question.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 29, 2011

More labour songs

I've completed a revision to HRMT 323: Injury Compensation and Disability Management and written IDRL 408: Workplace Injury, a new readings course. As always, I end up with more material that I can put in the course, include a small selection of music videos. These often make points more effectively than research articles.

First up is Pink's Mr. President. This song was dropped from a unit about precarious employment and minimum standards. How many songs talk about minimum wage? This one seems to capture something important about the disconnect between Alberta politicians and workers around the introduction of a two-tier minimum wage as well as the stalling around indexing it.

Delving into the country genre, Alabama's Roll On tells of the effect that a workplace injury (or the threat of one, although perhaps I just spoiled the song for you) on workers' families. Herein we see why workplace injury has such high political salience and thus why the state is compelled to create the appearance it is alive to the issue, even if OHS is all show and no go.

And finally the Script's For the First Time. Buried in here is some interesting commentary on the ripple-on effect unemployment on workers' lives. This speaks to the asymmetry of power flowing from the whip of hunger and how this affects workers' ability to resist injurious work.

I hope you enjoy these while I enjoy a short vacation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Safety fines not paid--so more fines?

There is an interesting story in the journal today. Basically a company was fined by the courts for not paying an earlier fine stemming from a 2003 occupational health and safety conviction.

Steve’s Oilfield Services (Edson) Ltd. was fined $90k in 2007 for a serious forklift injury in 2003. Last year, after being embarrassed by news reports on non-payment, the government took court actions to gain payment. Apparently getting companies to pay fines was not a priority until the public ridicule of the government began, which tells you a lot about how OHS has been run over the past decade. Anyhow, last month a judge added $10 grand to the fine.

The trick, though, is that the government is still has to collect the money. It is unclear whether it will be able to pierce the corporate veil to get cash owed if the corporation is simply an asset-less, inactive shell. If not, this points to a serious gap in OHS enforcement: a corporation can escape penalty for injuring or killing a worker by shutting down during the two- to four-year lag between the injury and conviction. So, in effect, there is no penalty.

And one wonders why injuries remain prevalent in Alberta...

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wage theft videos

Previously, I'd noted a campaign in Ontario examining the issue of wage theft, particularly vulnerable workers. The Workers' Action Centre has recently made available a series of videos putting faces to these workers.

The stories contained in these videos are compelling. They document employers who steal wages from the working poor, often immigrants. And they demonstrate that there is little effective enforcement of employment standards legislation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Will this fatality lead to prosecution?

An interesting development has come up in the case of Valeria Wolski. She was a caregiver killed by a client. The gist of the OHS report (leaked to the Edmonton Journal) was that the province contracted out the care of the client but failed to provide the contractor with important information about the hazard he posed. Paula Simons sums up the case on her blog.

Had the province provided the information to the contractor, the contractor would have (one presumes) taken steps to mitigate the risk to Wolski. This did not happen.

The question I have is whether the province will prosecute this case under the occupational health and safety act? Here we have a principal spectacularly failing in its duty to advise the contractor about a hazard and this failure directly caused the fatality. This seems like the kind of egregious behaviour that even the Alberta government typically feels compelled to prosecute.

If the province won't prosecute, will we see a private prosecution under the Criminal Code? You'll recall a few years back that the feds modified the Code in the wake of the Westray disaster to allow for prosecutions. This change has largely been a failure because no government has availed itself of this ability to prosecute (with a single exception).

But last year in BC, the Steelworkers began a private prosecution regarding a fatality in a sawmill. In this case, the crown was not prepared to prosecute. This private prosecution was greenlighted earlier this year.

A private prosecution would be an interesting political challenge to the government. Whomever launched such a prosecution would be saying that it had no confidence in the government's willingness to enforce its own legislation, even in cases where there is criminal negligence. Various unions might well want to bloody the government's nose in this way.

Simons also makes the very sharp point that the OHS order issued in this case that required provision of information about dangerous clients (and continues to do so hereafter), applies only to one of six regions in Alberta. How will such a narrow order, which the province has not made public, prevent future deaths, Simons asks.

The short answer is that it won't.

I think the next question is whether preventing injury and death is indeed the real purpose of Alberta's OHS system? Currently the system fails to prevent injury and death on a grand scale.

Why is that?

Is it impossible? Or is the operation of OHS designed to get citizens to accept a particular level of workplace injury that is acceptable to employers' bottom lines?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Widespread safety violations "good news" in Alberta...

Alberta has released the results of a workplace inspection blitz on employers which typically employer young workers (15- to 24-year-olds). Convenience stores and restaurants were the primary targets.

Of the 118 initial inspections, 36 resulted in no orders to remedy violations. The remaining 82 inspections saw 181 orders issued, although none were stop-work or stop-use orders.

The particular areas of concern were hazard assessment and abatement, emergency preparedness and response, first aid, and WHMIS safety information—all preventative steps designed to reduce the occurrence or severity of workplace injury.

The Ministry’s press release is titled “Positive workplace safety results a good sign for Alberta's young workers”. But pretty clearly these results are not positive. Seventy per cent of employers inspected weren’t obeying pretty basic safety rules.

The kicker is that employers knew these inspectors were coming (the blitz was announced months ago). That 70% didn’t get their ducks in a row tells you a lot about the degree of respect employers have of occupational health and safety rules in Alberta.

And that the government tries to spin this as a good news story tells you a lot about the degree of respect it has for Albertan’s intelligence.

Next up is residential construction. That should be quite interesting as a walk around any neighbour in Edmonton reveals widespread non-use of fall protection.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, July 4, 2011

Research: The Right to Refuse

Gary Gray has published a new article in Droit et société investigating the right to refuse unsafe work from an ethnographic perspective. Gray's work usually provides a compelling read and "Constraints to upholding workplace safety laws and regulations within organization" is no different.

By examining the way in which workers respond to being required to perform unsafe work, Gray's research provides evidence that the right to refuse unsafe work is a weak right and must be understood in the context of a worker's position and organizational practices.

Among his conclusions are that workers will often choose informal means of resisting unsafe work (in order to minimize confrontation) as opposed to outright refusals of work. Similarly, employers will often employ internal strategies designed to pressure workers up to the point of a refusal (in the hopes that they will knuckle under) and then stop, in order to avoid triggering external enforcement.

These behaviours make it difficult to "see" instances where refusals of unsafe work are warranted and leave hazards unabated. In one of Gray's more disturbing anecdotes, his resistance to perform work (entailing bypassing lockout procedures and removing guarding) resulted in the supervisor agreeing not to push the issue with him and then recruiting an inexperienced summer student to do that (unsafe) job the next day.

There is significantly more to this paper, including a discussion of how ticketing of employees interacts with internal safety practices to disadvantage workers. Overall, this is a useful corrective to the "blaming the worker" vibe that is permeating Alberta OHS today.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Child labour in the developing world

With the end of school upon us, many children and adolescents are starting summer jobs. World Vision has timed some new material about the worst forms of child labour around the world to coincide with this.

My blogger-fu is too weak to embed their video in the blog, but if you click on the link above it should jump you to the World Vision site where you can trigger the videos.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nursing "shortage" reflects political decisions

The Edmonton Journal has posted an interesting story about the job prospects of nursing graduates. Looking past the basic narrative, what the story reveals is labour shortages or surpluses in the public sector are political creations, largely unrelated to actual supply and demand.

The article details the recent history of the nursing labour force in Alberta. There was a shortage in 2008, with the province spending big recruiting from India, the Philippines and United Kingdom and closing operating rooms.

Then, in 2009, the province had too many nurses and froze hiring and spent $20 million buying out older (more expensive) nurses.

And now we're back to a shortage and the the province agreed to a three-year contract with the union wherein promised to hire 70 per cent of all nursing graduates into regular positions.

So what does this tell us? A reasonable person might first question the competence of senior health managers who don't seem to know if there is a shortage or surplus and have spent money "fixing" both "problems" in the course of three short years.

A more insightful analysis is that worker "shortages" and "surpluses" in Alberta's public sector don't mean there is an actual shortage or surplus of workers. Rather, a "surplus" of nurses means the province want to reduce spending and is going to cut nursing positions. A "shortage" means the province is flush and/or is getting heat for poor health care and wants to buy its way out of its problems.

We saw something similar in education earlier this year, when the premier was announcing hundreds of millions of dollars in new school construction (meaning huge contracts for the construction industry, a strong supporter of the conservative government) at the same time the Minister of Education was pleading poverty and forcing school boards to layoff teachers (cough, cough).

Such duplicity significantly damages the credibility of the government. Can we trust politicians when they announce there are too many or too few workers? Indeed, can we trust anything a government politician says about the labour market? Given this environment, it is hardly surprising public sector unions have refused to cooperate with government austerity measures.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Canada blocks asbestos ban

Asbestos--a carcinogenic mineral mined in Quebec--has long been a source of injury to Canadian workers. Not just miners but construction workers, office workers and even their families. Over time, the deceit practiced by the asbestos industry and the blind eye turned by government has been revealed and its domestic use dramatically curtailed.

To maintain this industry, Canada has focused on exporting asbestos to the developing world. This ensures that workers there will face the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases we're seeing today. This policy choice is designed to keep about 500 people employed in (very hazardous) mining work in Quebec.

The Calgary Herald has picked up an interesting story out of Geneva. Countries are considering whether to add asbestos to Annex III of the United Nations' Rotterdam Convention. This would make it effectively impossible to continue major exports of asbestos.

Canada has been coy about whether it opposes this move or not. A small number of other countries (powerhouses like Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine) have opposed the inclusion of asbestos in Annex III, thereby keeping it off the list. This opposition melted over the past few days and, after staying silent (i.e., hiding behind Kyrgyzstan's skirts), Canada is suddenly voicing its opposition to including asbestos in Annex III.

Or, more accurately, the government is saying that Canadians think its cool to export a known carcinogen to the developing world where it will cause untold death and suffering. Another proud moment in the history of asbestos in Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Migrant worker housing and health

I ran across this study of housing provided to migrant farmworkers in BC's Okanagan Valley recently. The gist is that there is significant variability in the accommodations, some of the accommodation is substandard and that migrant workers have few avenues to seek recourse.

The topic of migrant workers was also examined in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Migrant workers were found healthy upon arrival, but limited access to health care, substandard working and living conditions, isolation, and language difficulties were threats to maintaining good health. These barriers also affected migrant agricultural workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 13, 2011

Is discipline warranted?

It would appear the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta has landed himself in the soup. According to press reports, he borrowed much of his speech to the graduating class from someone else’s work. He’s apologized and I think we’d all agree that he made a bad decision in mirroring the content of the earlier speech.

Yet some are calling for the dean’s resignation. The Edmonton Journal references the university’s Research and Scholarship Integrity policy, noting it precludes students from passing off someone else’s ideas as their own on pain of expulsion.

This case actually poses an interesting HR question. What would be an appropriate penalty?

Much of discussion is moralizing in tone and centres on whether this speech is plagiarism. I wonder if this is not something of a red herring. Yes, the fellow borrowed liberally from someone else’s speech. But a convocation speech (or Bar Mitzvah toast or a eulogy) is different from a piece of original research. There is no claim of ownership and there is no credit earned through deceit.

Don't get me wrong--this was bad judgment--but we need to see this in its context. If he’d hired someone to write his speech for him (a no-no in academic papers!), we would probably think that was quite alright. In fact, I've often wished academics would hire someone to write their dinner speeches... .

The short of this is, while it is awfully fun to catch a professor out, this isn’t really the same situation as a student who turns in a paper bought on or borrowed from the internet. Or a professor who passes off the work of another as his or her own in a journal article. And I’d venture the university policy mentioned by the Journal does not apply to a graduation dinner speech.

From the university’s perspective, this is obviously a PR gaff. But the fellow apologized. There was little harm done. And, given the media crucifixion that is unfolding, I’m guessing this won’t happen again any time soon!

So is there anything to be gained by disciplining the dean?

From an HR perspective, I’d say no.

But there is likely some risk in disciplining the dean. The dean might well grieve the discipline—which entails legal costs and the risk of an adverse result. Or he might quit—which also has large direct and indirect costs.

A wise HR approach might be to make disapproving noises and wait until this blows over. Which it will. Because this just isn’t that big of a deal.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Alberta welfare reform analysis

An interesting graduate student essay crossed my email this morning examining the short-term effect of Alberta’s 1993 welfare reform on welfare recipients and single mothers. Basically the study applied StatsCan data to the assertion of the time that “any job is a good job”.

During this time, Alberta reduced cash and other benefits to welfare recipients and limited benefits to those ready to work. It also increased how much a recipient could earn before benefits were reduced and implemented a variety of administrative measures designed to push recipients back into the workforce. This resulted in a drop in caseloads but not necessarily optimal outcomes for those who left the welfare system.

I’ve broken the important conclusion up into three pieces below and added some emphasis:
Both groups spent more time in the labour force and being employed. However, welfare recipients worked more hours with no significant changes in composite wage rate; whereas single mothers experienced 13.8 percent decline in wage rates but no change in paid hours. Both groups were more likely to be covered by collective agreement and participated in employer-sponsored pension plans. However, welfare recipients were also more likely to work regular evening schedule rather than daytime schedule.

Taking into consideration the responsibility of nurturing children among single mothers, the fact that single mothers experienced declined in wages but not significant changes in their work schedules; whereas welfare recipients in general saw no changes in wage rates but were more likely to work regular evening schedule might suggest the presence of compensation principle. Inflexibilities of single mothers in terms of working hours might prevent them to accept higher-paid jobs that require evening schedule.

Since the welfare reform prevented them from obtaining social assistance; however, these single mothers were prompted to accept low-pay jobs that they would not have otherwise accepted. This could be an undesirable policy outcome because the welfare reform might have introduced additional stress to single mothers by obligating them to provide for their children through working at low-pay jobs. (pp. 19-20).
In effect, this study suggests that the changes in welfare policy had the effect of re-commodifying labour. That is to say, workers were compelled to accept work they otherwise wouldn’t because reduced welfare availability applied the whip of hunger to them. This, not surprisingly, appears to have differentially impacted workers, with single mothers being more negatively affected.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Two-tier minimum wage

As expected, the province announced it would increase the minimum wage yesterday. The new minimum (as of September 1) will be $9.40 an hour, unless you serve liquor (then it will $9.05).

The minimum wage will then increase each year based on an indexing formula. Although the liquor-serving wage will not move until the reqular wage is $10.05 and thereafter the $1 an hour disparity will be maintained.

On the one hand, this increase is good for low-wage workers. It restores their buying power to what it was more than a year ago when the Minister froze a planned increase. It does not nothing to address that the minimum wage is difficult to live on but maintaining buying power is a laudable benefit for these workers.

That said, these workers would have been better off if Minister Lukaszuk had never interfered with the existing system of increases in the first place. The 17-month delay in the increase is inexcusable. In effect, these low-wage workers (mostly women) subsidized their employer's profit through forgone increases during this time. There is no back pay provided for these workers for the time they went without while the government twiddled its thumbs.

And, under the old system, those who serve alcohol would not be getting a lower wage. The official explanation for the two-tier system appears to that those who serve alcohol receive more tips thus need a lower wage. We seem to be straying here into strange territory, where the government is saying not only what the minimum wage should be, but also what the maximum wage should be. If someone works hard and hustles for tips, why should they be penalized by the government with a lower wage?

No, really. Why?

One explanation is that the restaurant and food services lobby in Alberta has pushed hard to reduce the minimum wage for servers. Simply, this system reduces reduces their labour costs. They orchestrated a laughable write-in campaign last fall. They have also met with the Minister (here's a nice pic from their website):

And they've met with the premier and gave him a spiffy jacket:

There is no hard evidence that anything untoward has happened here. (Although the Edmonton Journal is reporting that the Canadian Food and Restaurant Association is not a registered lobby group...). Businesses lobby. So do workers.

It is interesting, though, that businesses get to meet the Minister and the Premier and then policy outcomes go their way. Even though a legislative committee stacked with conservative members clearly rejected this approach last fall. By contrast, labour leaders are refused meetings and policy goes against them.

It will also be interesting to follow the conservative leadership race. Minister Lukaszuk is expected by many to declare his candidacy. If he runs, will his list of supporters include members of the restaurant and food services industry? If he runs, will he release his list of donors? This kind of transparency will go a long way towards restoring my faith balanced public policy making.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Minimum wage to go up?

The Caledon Institute for Social Policy released a paper addressing minimum wage in April. This report contains some interesting statistics about minimum wages (in constant dollars) over time as well as considering it as a percentage of average wages.

Alberta continues to have the second lowest minimum wage in Canada. As of November, it will have the lowest wage. And Alberta’s minimum wage is also the second lowest in terms of its percentage of an average wage. When compared to both US and Canadian jurisdictions, Alberta’s minimum wage of the 4th lowest.

The report also provides an interesting analysis of the potential effect over time of indexing the minimum wage to either inflation or average wages. The most salient comment in this analysis is that no method of indexing is effective if the basic minimum wage rate is inadequate to allow workers to live on.

Alberta was set to raise the wage (in accordance with an indexing formula) in 2010 when the Minister put the brakes on. A subsequent review recommended a 25-cent increase last fall. To date, there have been no action on this advice and low-wage workers (mostly women and mostly poorly educated) are still being paid the same minimum wage they received in 2009.

It is expected that later today the Minister will announce an increase in the minimum wage from $8.80 to $9 an hour (effective some time in the fall). While this is good news for minimum wage earners, there are some questions we should ask.

The first question is why the delay? An 18-month delay in an increase means low-wage workers subsidize employers through static wages. One answer might be that the government, facing flagging polling numbers, did not want to annoy business further. If so, it did that on the backs of low-wage workers.

The second question is why only a 20-cent increase? A legislative committee recommended a 25-cent increase last year. That maintained wage parity to April 2010. Only going to 20 cents means the buying power of low-wage workers falls behind. Further, there does not seem to be any accounting for the effect of inflation from April 2010 to May 2011. So low-wage workers fall further behind.

My guess is that the Minister is going to announce he is running for the leadership of the conservative party. A small increase in the minimum wage gives him a response to critics who might say that he treated low-wage workers poorly during his time as Minister. Yet, it is such a small increase and it has been put off so long he will not face major blowback from employers.

There is a political shrewdness to that strategy that you have to admire. Until you realize that it means low-wage workers (often women) are being used as political pawns. Then it becomes kind of disgusting.

-- Bob Barnetson

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why is Alberta’s OHS system ineffective?

On Thursday evening, I gave a short presentation at the annual general meeting of the Calgary Workers' Resource Centre. The presentation addressed the question of why is Aberta's occupational health and safety system ineffective. While the more interesting part was actually the discussion afterwards, I've reproduced the text of the presentation below.

Why is Alberta’s OHS system ineffective?
Calgary Workers’ Resource Centre Annual General Meeting
26 May 2011

Thanks for inviting me to speak today. I know I’m competing for your attention with a large tray of Nanaimo bars so I’ll keep my comments brief. I’m going to start by explaining how we count workplace injuries in Alberta. I know that sounds terribly boring, but how we count injuries shows us three important things.

It shows us that injuries are socially constructed—that is, what we call an injury can vary, often wildly. It shows us that Alberta’s occupational health and safety system simply doesn’t work. And it show us that we ought to question whose side the government is really on around workplace injury.

I’m then going to talk a bit about why, practically, I think Alberta’s occupational health and safety system doesn’t work. That too is really a numbers game. There is almost no chance of an employer getting caught breaking the law. And, if they do, there is almost no chance they will face any sort of consequence.

I’m going to wrap up by talking about why, politically, Alberta’s occupational health and safety system doesn’t work. The nub of this analysis is that it is not meant to work. Health and safety is not about protecting workers, it is about protecting government and employers.

Counting Injuries
So let’s talk about how we count injuries in Alberta. The government uses two main measures: the lost-time claim rate and the disabling injury rate.

Lost-time claims are injuries reported to the workers’ compensation board (WCB) where the worker could not go to work the next day because of an injury-sustained at work. The LTC rate is the number of LTCs per 100 person years worked. Expressing this number as a rate controls for changes in the size of the workforce so numbers become comparable across time.

Disabling injuries is a broader category. It includes injuries reported to the WCB where the worker either could not go to work the next day or could go to work but could not do their job in some way. The DI rate is also the number of disabling injuries per 100 person years worked.

This spring, the government announced the lost-time claim rate was 1.41 injuries for every 100 person years worked. The disabling injury claim rate was 2.67 per 100 person years worked. This sounds good but there are a number of shortcomings with these measures.

The most obvious is that using rates obscures the actual number of injuries. A disabling injury rate of 3.09 per 100 person years worked sounds much less bad than “this year we injured 53,000 people so badly they couldn’t do their job the next day”. Which is what a disabling injury rate of 3.09 actually means.

It is also possible for employers to “convert” more serious injuries to seemingly less serious injuries by how the employer handles the claim. So, you might need time at home to rest a sprained knee but the employer tells you to come in and do light duties. This converts a lost-time claim to a modified work claim, which reduces the lost-time claim rate. Employers do this because it saves them money on their workers’ compensation premiums. Or your employer might simply tell you not to report an injury and, poof, your injury becomes statistically invisible.

The most telling criticism, though, is that these injury indicators excluded many injuries. In fact, they exclude most injuries. For example, if you get injured badly enough you need to go to the doctor or have rehab, but you can do your job the next day, you are not counted as injured. If you just need first aid or the rest of the shift off, you are not counted as injured. If you are outside of the ambit of workers’ compensation or don’t report your injury you are not counted as injured. And if you get an occupational disease you are likely not counted as injured.

A quick example is often useful. In 2009, Alberta’s workplace injuries were as follows:

Lost time claims: 28,688
Modified work claims: 24,625
Total Disabling injury claims: 53,313

These are all of the injuries Alberta officially “counts” when it talks about injuries. But this is a minority of overall injuries. For example, Alberta collects data about injuries requiring medical treatment but no modified work:

Medical aid claims: 95, 854

Adding in these numbers, suddenly we can see that actual number of injuries is 149,167—three times what the official injury numbers are. But, again, that’s not the whole story.

Not covered? 13% 171, 456
Not reported? 40% 285,760

Minor injuries? Occupational disease? Unknown but it likely doubles the count to about 500,000 injuries a year. This is important for three reasons:

1. Injuries are socially constructed. Official statistics report about 1 in 10 workplace injuries, skewed towards the most serious injuries.

2. OHS does not work. No reasonable person could conclude Alberta’s health and safety system works when half a million injuries occur every year.

3. The government does not protect workers. That the government hides this massive number of injuries and runs a system using techniques that were a failure when they were first used in Ontario in 1886 tells us that they are playing for the employer’s team.

Practical Impediments
I think an important question is why doesn’t Alberta’s occupational health and safety work.

One possible explanation is that workers are simply careless—that they cause their own injuries and there is nothing you can do about that. Certainly there are always going to be instances where carelessness does contribute to an injury. But what research there is says that carelessness makes a small contribution to injury rates—maybe a third or a quarter of injuries have carelessness as a component.

It’s important to recognize that carelessness can only cause an injury when a hazardous condition is already present in the workplace. The presence of that hazard is the choice of an employer. Blaming a moment of worker inattention for an injury obscures the employer’s responsibility for organizing work in a risky way.

A related explanation is that injuries are inevitable. Employers and workers often disagree about framing workplace injuries as inevitable. And that isn’t surprising. Workers shoulder most of the consequences of such injuries. By contrast, employers and their investors reap most of the rewards. For employers, risk is mostly an economic issue. And thus they cast the risk of workplace injury as minimal, unavoidable and acceptable. This economic perspective dominates popular discussion and public policy.

One implication of that approach is that, since perfect safety is unattainable, safety initiatives should be assessed on a cost-benefit basis. Put bluntly, safety should only be improved when it costs less to prevent the injury than the injury itself costs. Employers assert that they ought to make these decisions because government regulation will cause rising prices, job losses, and a declining standard of living.

On the surface, this economic perspective appears quite sensible. Every thing we do entails some risk. And risk reduction can be very expensive. But workers—those who are most often injured and killed—tend to see things differently.

Workers note that workplace injury is not some sort of natural phenomenon that no one can control. Rather, the risks that workers face reflect decisions employers make—decisions about what, when, where and how goods and services are produced. Employers make these decisions with the goal of maximizing profitability. In that way, injury is a cost imposed on workers by employers. And allowing employers to do this is a political choice by the state.

Workers also know that the most important consequence of health and safety risks is not economic. It is the injury and death of workers. Reducing injury, disease and death—not maximizing cost-effectiveness—is the pre-eminent goal of occupational health and safety activities.

That’s not to say that workplace injuries don’t have economic consequences. Clearly they do. Injured workers can’t earn a living and lose their houses. Society must pay for medical treatment. Employers profit from dangerous work. But these economic outcomes are secondary effects—byproducts of workers being exposed to the risk of injury and death by their employers.

If you accept that injuries are not inevitable but rather are the result of employer decisions, the question then becomes why doesn’t regulation prevent them? I think the bottom line is that there is almost no risk of employers being caught violating safety rules. And, of they are caught, there is almost no chance of being penalized.

Consider workplace inspections. Alberta has 102 health and safety inspectors and performs somewhere around 10,000 inspections of various types each year. That sounds like a lot of inspection, but there are 144,000 employers, many of whom have more than one worksite. What that means practically is a worksite can expect one inspection every 14 to 20 years.

If you phone in a complaint, which is the other way to trigger an inspection, it can take up to 18 days for the government to respond. Assuming an inspector comes out (which isn’t always the case) and issues an order, it can take an average of 86 day to get the hazard remedied. What worker would bother with that process more than once?

Let’s take at an example. Last fall, the province announced an inspection blitz of commercial construction sites. 73 worksites sites were inspected and 214 OHS orders were issued. Over one-quarter of the worksites were subject to a stop-work order, which means there was imminent danger present. There were similar results during this spring’s blitz on forklift safety.
If employers don’t bother complying with the rules when they know they will be inspected, imagine what happens normally when they know there is no chance of inspection?

Similarly, when an employer does get caught egregiously violating the rules, there is almost no chance of legal sanction. In 2008, Alberta reported 22 successful prosecutions for violations going as far back as 2004. During that time, approximately 700 workers got killed.

The largest fine was $419,250 for a 2004 violation. That sounds impressive. But the company’s annual revenues were $47 million. That’s like you or me getting a $440 ticket for killing someone. Prosecution numbers actually dropped in 2009, with only 9 prosecutions and the highest fine being $300,000. And, as we saw this summer in the Calgary Herald’s investigative series, the government sometimes doesn’t collect these fines and can’t even tell how many were collected.

Realpolitik of Health and Safety
The key question here is why does the government run an ineffective health and safety system?

Perhaps inspections are just too expensive to do competently? The answer is no. Of the $23.3 million Alberta spent on OHS in 2009, roughly $21.7 million came from employer premiums transferred from the WCB. Direct taxpayer funding of OHS was approximately $1.6 million. The government could clearly afford to spend more if it wanted effective inspections.

I think it is also fair to ask whether non-enforcement is solely a health and safety issue. Again, the answer is no. Alberta’s child labour laws are widely violated and there is no meaningful enforcement of them. Again employers face little chance of being caught violating the law and no penalty beyond having to pay whatever unpaid wages are due.

I think the government regulates ineffectively because government politicians want it that way--it is an intentional strategy. Governments face pressure from businesses to minimize regulation. Less regulation reduces employers’ operating costs. In the case of workplace injury, it also allows them to externalize some costs of production onto workers, their families and society in form of workplace injuries because they can organize work more hazardously,

At the same time, governments have to maintain their own legitimacy and the legitimacy of capitalism. They can’t afford to have it look like employers can injure workers willy-nilly. So they create a set of rules that says injuring workers is bad. This makes it appear that the government is doing something about workplace injury. And then government simply underfund the system so it has no real effect in the workplace.

They also create a system of injury compensation. This does reduce some of the financial burden of injury for workers--although coverage isn’t universal. And many forms of injury are ignored or excluded. And, of course, workers are still maimed and disabled at an alarming rate. The government then uses the careless worker myth to explain away these injuries—basically saying “it is workers’ own darned fault” that they got injured.

Together, the health and safety and workers’ compensation systems are designed to channel worker resistance to being maimed and killed into manageable processes. Rather than worker joining unions, putting down their tools and maybe supporting worker-friendly parties, workers are encouraged to phone in complaints, watch out for themselves, and seek compensation when they get hurt.

That is a pretty lousy system for workers. But it works great for employers and the government. The government gets to look like it cares about workers’ health. And employers get to run their shops with no regard for the damage they cause workers. And that's why Alberta's occupational health and safety system is ineffective.