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