Saturday, November 24, 2012

Workers and the Petro-State: Worker Safety and Injury in Alberta

Workers and the Petro-State: Worker Safety and Injury in Alberta
Parkland Institute Petro, Power and Politics Conference
24 November, Edmonton
Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor
Labour Relations, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Good morning. My name is Bob and I’m a prof at Athabasca University. What I’d like to talk to you about this morning are workplace injuries in Alberta—specifically why Alberta has so many injuries and why the government does nothing about it.

I understand there’ll be time for questions and personal attacks at the end of the session, but I’m also happy to take questions on the fly. But let’s start out with me asking you some questions. Does anyone know someone who has been injured at work?

What kinds of injury?

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty typical set of the responses.

Anyone want to guess how many workplace injuries there are each year in Alberta?
My estimate is that there are about 500,000 workplace injuries in Alberta each year. Which is a staggering number in a workforce of about 2 million. What’s really interesting about this is that the government never talks about these injuries.

Government Injury Statistics
Each year, the government reports about 150 occupational fatalities and around 50,000 serious workplace injuries—and that’s it. No other injuries exist if you look at government documents and press releases. Yet that is a gross understatement of the true level of injury.

WCB stats show us that are an additional 100,000 or so injuries requiring medical aid—a trip to the doctor. The government knows about these injuries, but they just never mention them. So right off the bat and using the government’s own stats, we see that the true level of injury in Alberta is at least 150,000 injuries per year.

We also need to account for the 13% or so of workers not covered by WCB. Their injuries aren’t recorded in the WCB claim stats the government uses because they can’t file a WCB claim. That takes us to about 175,000 injuries a year.

Then we need to factor in the 40% of reportable injuries that aren’t reported, for a variety of reasons. That takes us to about 250,000 injuries a year—or five times the level of injury the government talks about.

We then need to factor in injuries that don’t have to be reported. These are minor injuries—cuts, burns, bruises—where workers just basically tough it out. Yeah, these are minor injuries but they are still injuries that we might prefer to avoid. And they are injuries we get because our employer put certain hazards in the workplace—like sharp knives in hot soapy water in a restaurant.

There is no good way to estimate the frequency of minor injuries. My guess is that they are very common and likely the overall injury total is around 500,000 injuries a year. You’ll note that I’ve excluded occupational illness and psychological injuries—such as those caused by stress—so the real number is going to be even higher.

These numbers tell us three things:
  1. Alberta workplaces are extremely unsafe.
  2. Alberta’s government consistently understates the level of injury—by a factor of 10.
  3. Alberta’s occupational health and safety system—its injury prevent system—is a failure.

The question then becomes, why?

Lack of Enforcement
At a basic level, Alberta workplaces are unsafe because of widespread employer non-compliance with safety laws. For example, in 2011, the government announced a safety inspection blitz in residential construction. Despite knowing government inspectors were coming, the majority of the 387 employers inspected were found to have safety violations on their worksites. And a quarter of them had violations so serious there were stop-work or stop-use orders issued. Sadly, this is fairly typical of inspection results.

This degree of employer non-compliance reflects long-term, anemic government enforcement. Employers know there is almost no chance they will be caught violating the rules. For example, on average, workplaces are inspected less than once every 14 years in Alberta. If you call in a safety violation, it can take safety inspectors up to 18 days to respond. So there is really no real chance of an employer getting caught breaking the law.

Employers also know that, if they do get caught, there is no penalty. Most of the time, they just get ordered to remedy the violation. Alberta does prosecute a handful of employers each year—typically when the employer has killed or seriously maimed a worker. But the fines for this are levied years after the event and are tax deductable (i.e., tax-payer subsidized). And a good lawyer can get the fine paid to an employer-sponsored safety organization—that is to say, the tax-payer subsidized fine can be paid to other employers to do safety work the employer should have been doing in the first place. The government is talking about ticketing violators. But they have been talking  about that since 2004. I’ll believe it when I see it.

As a result of this dynamic, employers adopt a cost-benefit approach to safety. They only prevent injuries that are cheaper to prevent than to incur. And because Alberta allows employers to externalize much of the cost associated with injuries onto workers and the taxpayer, very few injuries are “worth” preventing. Consequently, we have half a million annual injuries.

So why, then, does the government do such a crap job of enforcing it safety laws?

Why Does the Government Allow this to Happen?
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that the government faces few consequences when workers get maimed and killed. Workers who get WCB benefits worry they will lose their benefits if they speak out. In that way, compensation becomes a tool of manage worker discontent—it gives workers something to lose if they rock the boat.

Employees outside of the WCB system worry about getting fired. When I say that, I’m often told that if people were getting fired for complaining about safety, it would be all over the press. That’s wrongheaded for two reasons. First, people aren’t being fired, they are being subtly threatened with it and pressured to stay quiet. Second, the press doesn’t care.

We had a story this summer where a cleaner was sexually assaulted by a coworker on the job at MacEwan University. She told her boss. And her boss fired both her and her mother. That story—which is hugely juicy—got zero media play despite the SEIU holding a press conference to publicize it.

Inadequate enforcement also reflects that Alberta has a weak labour movement. I know it pisses Gil off when I say that but I think we need to be honest about the challenges. For sixty years, the government has enacted laws making it hard to unionize in order to keep workers cheap and docile for employers. By contrast, Alberta has a powerful employer lobby. You hear them howl every time a minimum-wage increase is mooted and they are often to stall or turn back such an increase. Alberta politicians know better than to cross powerful employers.

Regulatory Capture of Alberta’s OHS system
The upshot of this is Alberta’s injury prevention system has been captured by employers. Regulatory capture means a state agency that is meant to act in the public interest instead acts in the interests of one of the stakeholders—in this case, employers.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. Most visibly, the health and safety system is completely ineffective at preventing workplace injury—which is its raison d’ĂȘtre. Instead, it allows employers to organize work unsafely (because that is usually the cheapest way to do so) and thereby transfer production costs to workers in the form of injury.

Alberta’s OHS system is also largely funded by employers—another characteristic of regulatory capture. In 2009, Alberta spent about $23 million on injury prevention, of which nearly $22 million came from employer WCB premiums transferred to the government from WCB. If the government suddenly lowered the boom on employers—started putting them in jail when they kill workers—do you think the employer-dominated WCB would keep the money flowing?

The government has also spent a lot of time blaming workers for their injuries. The most recent example is the 2008 Bloody Lucky video campaign. The videos clearly portray workers as the cause of their own injuries. For example, one video shows a shoe-store employee climbing a rickety ladder in high heels, reaching for some stock (which is stacked precariously), falling backwards, breaking an unguarded light fixture and then falling onto the glass.

The impression the video conveys is that the worker was at fault. In fact, the employer told her what shoes to wear, gave her a defective ladder, stacked the stock up high and unstably and failed to guard the light fixture. While the proximate cause of injury was the worker’s behaviour, the root caused was dangerous job design.

The government also cheerleads industry efforts to blame workers. Most recently, employers have been trying to impose random drug testing in Alberta workplaces. The rationale for drug testing is that it will improve safety and, thus, this end trumps any privacy concerns workers have. Yet there is no evidence that random drug testing improves workplace safety.

Focusing attention on worker drug use does, however, target workers as the cause of workplace injuries: those darned stoned workers. It also obscures how construction and energy employers have contributed to drug use in the workplace. These employers rapidly expanded their workforces and staffed them with contingent workers. They then pay them lots of money, work them very hard and house them in isolated camps. It’s not surprising that this results in some drug use.

Instead of addressing these structural conditions (which employers created), the employers start disciplining workers for smoking dope. Which, in turn, drives workers to use crack, coke and meth—as these are harder to test for. So, is it really workers who are to blame for drug use on job sites?

Workplace Injury and Democracy
I see that my time is up so let’s bring this home in 100 words or less.

When I look at OHS in Alberta, what I see is a system that doesn’t prevent injury. I see a system that allows employers to organize work unsafely and provides employers with liability protection in the form of workers’ compensation. And I see a system that gives government political cover by blaming workers for their injuries.

This system undermines the right of Albertans to a safe and healthy work environment. This arrangement is not democratic. And it’s not in the public interest. Rather, it reflects collusion between the state and powerful employers to maintain the status quo regardless of the cost to workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Settlement in Kevan Chandler fatality

Six years ago, Kevan Chandler was killed while working for Tongue Creek Feeders. It appears that his widow, Lorna Chandler, has finally received compensation for his death. This compensation comes after a six-year lawsuit. The settlement also appears to have forced Tongue Creek Feeders into bankruptcy, resulting in 40-odd workers being laid off. 

Like all Alberta farms, Tongue Creek Feeders was exempted from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. And, like most Alberta farms, Tongue Creek Feeders did not choose to voluntarily enroll in workers’ compensation.

The Chandler case highlights some of the strengths found in the original compromise between labour and capital over workers’ compensation. For injured workers, compensation is (usually) immediate, predictable and stable. Had the employer been covered by workers’ compensation, there would have been no lawsuit, with its costs and delays and uncertainties.

Although it appears Chandler’s widow was compensated before the employer went bankrupt, the history of workplace injury is replete with cases where an injured worker wins a lawsuit against the employer only to see the settlement evaporate when the employer goes out of business. Workers’ compensation prevents this outcome.

For the employer, workers’ compensation provides significant liability protection. Had the employer bought coverage, it would not likely have gone out of business as a result of this fatality. The costs of the settlement would have been borne by all members of the industry group (basically risk is pooled). At worst, the employer would have seen an increase in its workers’ compensation premiums.

I’m often critical of workers’ compensation. Yet, for many workers, workers’ compensation provides an important financial support after they are injured. It is odd that Alberta exempts both the most hazardous industries (e.g., farm work) and the least hazardous industries (e.g., accounting) from mandatory coverage.

While voluntary coverage is available, it appears relatively few employers choose to enroll in it. I expect this reflects a combination of ignorance, wishful thinking and cold calculation about the probability of a successful lawsuit if a worker is injured or killed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Media coverage of unions

An interesting thesis came across my desk(top) this week. Travis Reitsma's MA thesis from the University of Windsor's examines media bias in the coverage of the 2009 municipal workers' strike in Windsor. Reitsma examined 480 records from the Windsor Star to find anti-union bias in its reporting.

-- Bob Barnetson

New research on foreign workers and injury stats

Just Labour has issues its newest issue and there are two articles of note.

My colleague Jason Foster has published "Making temporary permanent: The silent transformation of the temporary foreign worker program". The gist is the TFW program expanded in the mid-2000s to address labour shortages but following the recession in 2008, has not contracted. That is to say, as a group, foreign workers are not temporary (contrary to federal and provincial government rhetoric) but rather represent a seemingly permanent group of (increasingly low-skill) workers that expand the labour pool. One implication of a looser labour pool may be a concerted effort to reduce wage pressures.

I also have an article in this issue entitled "The validity of Alberta safety statistics". The crux of this article is that injury statistics used to monitor workplace safety in Alberta significantly under-report the rate of injury and appear vulnerable to gaming, both by employers and the workers' compensation board. These threats to the validity of these measures suggest the government should limit the inferences drawn from them, which include "informing" the public that workplaces are relatively safe and increasingly safer.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Free screening: Village of Widows

Edmonton Opera is presenting a free screening of the documentary “Village of Widows” by award-winning filmmaker Peter Blow on Tuesday, November 13th at 7 pm at the Citadel Theatre’s Zeidler Hall. Admission to this event is free and there will be a post-movie panel discussion.

“Village of Widows” recounts the story of the Sahtu Dene people of Northwest Territories who worked in the world’s first uranium mine at Port Radium, NWT. Members of this community worked for the mine carrying sacks of ore which has left them vulnerable to the hazardous effects of uranium.

Arn Keeling and John Sandlos wrote an interesting piece on this event in 2009 entitled "Environmental justice goes underground"

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Farm safety questioning continues

The fireworks over farm safety continued in the legislature yesterday during question period (p .416). This sort of debate provides intereating insight into the politics and politicking around farm safety and child labour in Alberta. 

Liberal David Swann raised the denial of farm workers of virtually all employment rights that the rest of us take for granted with Minister of Ag and Rural Development Vern Olson:
Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Over the summer there was discomfort across the agricultural sector over the possibility of a boycott of Alberta products from international corporations such as Pepsi, Frito-Lay, McDonalds, and Yum! foods, who have strong ethical procurement positions related to child labour and human rights in agriculture. It is interesting to note that the city of Medicine Hat is now also looking at its procurement policy. As most Albertans are shocked to realize, the paid people employed to produce our food, not including family members of family farms, are without protection under occupational health and safety, WCB, and labour standards for children. To the agriculture minister: are you concerned that these major buyers of Alberta meat and other produce, seeing the conflict, may be forced to boycott . . . 
 The Speaker: The hon. minister. 
 Mr. Olson: Well, first of all, Mr. Speaker, I will acknowledge the hon. member’s interest in this issue. He’s been talking about it for some time. I want to acknowledge that, but I also want to say that I’m very disappointed at his comments, which put our industry at risk in terms of talking about boycotts and, I would say, encouraging multinationals to boycott Alberta farmers, Alberta producers, and Alberta workers. Now, we take this issue very seriously. We’re very interested in worker safety, too. That’s why we have struck a Farm Safety Advisory Council. I have their report. The Minister of Human Services and I are working on a response.
It is interesting that Olson emphasizes the potential economic effect of a boycott (a symptom of child labour in farming) rather addressing the root cause (the existence of child labour on farms, in contravention of international law). As an observation, if Olson took the issue of farm safety "very seriously" wouldn't he do something with the report from the farm safety committee in the eight months since he received it?

Swann then changes tactics and questions Minister of Finance Doug Horner about the cost transfer that occurs because farmers are not required to carry workers’ compensation coverage in Alberta. This is an interesting angle because it highlights how farms are given special treatment by the government and that one of the effects is to transfers production costs onto taxpayers and injured workers.
Dr. Swann: Thank you. Well, as a lawyer I’m concerned about your lack of commitment to human rights in this province. To the Finance and Treasury Board minister: is it acceptable to you that commercial agricultural operations choosing not to have WCB are downloading health care costs onto the public purse to the tune of $4.5 million annually, at a minimum, according to a local expert? That’s a lot of hip replacements, road work. How do you feel about that? 
Mr. Horner: Well, Mr. Speaker, first of all, I’d like to know who the local expert is that came up with that number. Secondly, coming from a farming family myself and having some history in the agricultural community, I’m obviously concerned about farm safety, very concerned. I’ve had friends who have been injured on the farm because they were farming their farm. The two ministers are working on the report. We expect to have the results of that soon.
As it happens, I’m the local “expert” (although I wouldn't use that term myself). Here’s the estimate based on what data is available. If someone has better data or a sharper analysis, I’d love to look at it:

In 2011, the WCB reported 2825 workers on 1300 “farming operations” covered by workers’ compensation in Alberta. “Farming operations” exclude apiaries, feedlots, greenhouses, etc. but “farming operations” seem to encompass the largest group of agricultural workers (and there was no way to weight the data properly to include these other types of operations) so I used farming operations data.

Among workers on farming operations, there were 76 workers’ compensation claims accepted with total medical aid cost of $227,000 (wage-loss and rehab costs are excluded). To calculate the overall annual medical costs of agricultural injuries, I first divided the medical costs by number of workers ($227,000/2825 workers). This gets us a rough figure of $80.35 in medical aid costs per worker.

I then multiplied the annual per-worker medical costs by the number of agricultural workers in Alberta. There is no agreed upon number of agriculture workers so I chose 60,000 so as to account for the number of individual operators (about 49,000 from the 2006 federal ag census) plus the number of waged agricultural workers (about 12,000, a widely accepted estimate). The upshot is $80.35 x 60,000 = $4,821,000 in medical costs per year.

At present, the WCB pays $227,000 in medical aid costs so I took that out of the $4,821,000 to get $4,594,000 in annual injury costs. This $4,594,000 is the medical costs from agricultural workplace injury paid for by Alberta Health Services and individual workers each year. In effect, this is a cost transferred from industry (which would otherwise pay for it via WCB premiums) to the general taxpayer and workers because workers’ compensation insurance is not mandatory in agriculture.

There are many caveats with such a rough calculation. First, the number of agricultural workers is really pivotal in the calculation and I am admittedly guessing at this number. The province should be able to come up with a better number.

Second, there is significant under-reporting of injuries (about 40% of injuries go unreported) thus the true overall transferred costs might well be much higher (e.g., $7,656,667).

Third, I have used data from “farming operations” as the basis of the per-worker cost. Workers in feedlots have much higher medical aid costs ($187 per worker per year), thus the calculation will underestimate the true cost transfer, but not in a way I can correct for.

Fourth, this estimate is likely to exclude most costs associated with occupational disease. This would drive the number up appreciably.

So back to the Leg. Swann asks again Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock when the province will be responding to the report by the Advisory Committee on Farm Safety that was submitted in February (and leaked this summer). 
Dr. Swann: Yes. They’ve been working on it for decades. How many more decades, Mr. Minister? To the Human Services minister: since the Premier pledged to extend occupational health and safety and WCB to paid farm workers, excluding family farm members, the question is: when? Albertans want to see change. 
Mr. Hancock: Mr. Speaker, seeing as that question has been answered twice already, that we’re working on it and it’ll be coming shortly, perhaps I could use the time that I have to ask the hon. member to stop disrespecting potato farmers and other farmers in the province by encouraging international companies who have got policies to boycott their products.
Hancock seems to be one of the sharper and more moderate PC ministers. That he chose in his comment to advance the interests of potato farmers allegedly using child labourers rather than the interests of children I think tells us a fair bit about where the government is going to come down on farm safety laws (and in particular child labour) in one of Alberta's three most dangerous industries.

-- Bob Barnetson