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