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:
- Alberta workplaces are extremely unsafe.
- Alberta’s government consistently understates the level of injury—by a factor of 10.
- 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’être. 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