Tuesday, November 29, 2016

AUPE Labour History video

AUPE (the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees) is Alberta's largest union and will soon be celebrating its 100th anniversary. As part of its member education efforts, it offers a variety of courses for its members (and members can get university credit for these courses through Athabasca University).

Au is currently revising its labour history course to include new material and offer online components, including videos. The teaser above is a part of the rollout of this course (officially launched sometime next year) and does a nice job of identifying the positive role unions have played in workers' lives.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 25, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The Bar Association

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture focuses on the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “The Bar Association”. I recently coauthored a paper on the absence of unions in science fiction with Mark McCutcheon and this was one of the few examples we found of unions in the (huge) canon of SF.

The crux of the episode is that the workers in Quark’s Bar are treated poorly and decide to fight back by forming a union. The workers go on strike and, eventually, win slightly better pay in exchange for disbanding the union. The use of a strike as plot device is one of the two most common ways unions are represented in fiction of all genres.

There are some interesting bits in the episode. An early exchange between the space station’s doctor and the union organizer Rom highlights the conflicted class position of many workers, who are presently exploited while awaiting their own chance to join the ranks of capital.

The workers eventually decide to form a union. This is anathema to the hyper-capitalist society of the Ferengi and the workers fear repression by the state. Yet the workers decide to unionize anyways because they have nothing left to lose.

The dispute then spills over to the station personnel. The station commander (who is the state in this story) then has to intervene to maintain social stability.

The employer (Quark) then calls in some muscle from his employer buddies to terrify the workers, and one of the workers immediately caves to the pressure. The employer then threats the workers unless they get back to work.

In the end, the workers disband their union and the employer quietly meets their demands. From the perspective of mainstream trade unionism, this is likely viewed as a defeat (the union id dissolved). From the perspective of more radical trade unionists (e.g., the Wobblies), this is a success because (1) the workers concerns were addressed, (2) the workers earned an important lesson about solidarity and how to exercise power, and (3) employer learned an important lesson about the limits of his power (and thus is less likely to be a dick in the future).

Overall, this is a pretty typical representation of unions in sci-fi: the union emerges suddenly because of circumstances and then disappears (reinforcing the view that unions are not “normal” parts of society). In this episode, the state plays a neutral role (which is not the case in other examples) and, by protecting the rights of workers to strike, helps them exert pressure. The state also applies some pressure to the employer in order to encourage settlement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Injured workers speak out on Alberta WCB

Last week, I wrote about employer responses to Alberta’s WCB review and its interim report. This week, labour has launched its own campaign supporting WCB reform. You can see the centrerpiece video below.

“It’s not just my experience – I’ve spoken to worker after worker after worker who has had a terrible time dealing with the WCB,” CIWAA executive director Donna Oberik said. “The system doesn’t treat workers like people – they get denied legitimate claims and face a bureaucratic nightmare that never gets resolved. The life they knew is over. The system needs to be more human.”
The interim report of the WCB Review Panel appear to substantiate many of these concerns.

—Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Harassment as an OHS issue

A private member’s bill (Bill 208) has been introduced in the Alberta Legislature that amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act to prohibit workplace harassment. Chapter 6 in the OHS textbook Jason Foster and I just wrote provides some useful context on harassment and bullying.

Bill 208 defines harassment as “any inappropriate conduct, comment, display, action or gesture by a person” that constitutes a threat to the health or safety of a worker based on either a protected ground or which “adversely affects the worker’s psychological or physical well-being and that the person knows or ought reasonably to know would cause a worker to be humiliated or intimidated.”

The Act places some parameters around instances of conduct the adversely affect a worker’s well being. It notes harassment can comprise “repeated conduct, comments, displays, actions or gestures” or “a single, serious occurrence of conduct, or a single, serious comment, display, action or gesture, that has a lasting, harmful effect on the worker.” Reasonable action by the employer related to the management of workers or the worksite is not considered harassment.

The short of the rest of the obligations are that employers must now have and enforce policies around workplace harassment. (How this works if the employer is the harasser is an interesting question... .) If an employee believes the employer has botched the investigation of a workplace harassment complaint they can report the matter to Occupational Health and Safety and OHS will investigate.

Workplace harassment and bullying appears endemic. A 2014 panel study suggests 23% of workers have been bullied at work. There is a higher 2012 stat (45%) floating around, but the methodology gives me the willies so I’m going to go with this more conservative number.

In theory, Bill 208 provides a new avenue for redress (especially for non-unionized employees) around harassment. I’m not an expert in workplace bullying, but I have seen a fair bit (both at when I worked at the Labour Board and as my union’s grievance officer). The questions I have about this (quite laudable) legislation are:
  1. Bullying or tough management: As Jason and I wrote, “The line between “tough” management and “bullying” management can be difficult to ascertain, especially if the bullying takes the form of misuse of managerial prerogatives such as scheduling, work assignments, and the like.” And, “Some researchers suggest that employers may overtly or covertly encourage bullying by managers as a way to maximize the work the employer can extract from its workers.” (p.132) The note in the OHS Code that “reasonable actions by the employer” related to management do not constitute harassment will likely means “smart” bullies will be able to evade sanction. 
  2. Penalties: Alberta does a poor job of penalizing OHS offenders (e.g., prosecutions and fines are down over time), which may (partly explain) its very high rate of injury. If a worker complains and an OHS officer finds the employer botched the harassment investigation and issues an order that the employer ignores (or otherwise subverts), what happens? In theory, the OHS officer can push for an administrative penalty (i.e., a fine). There is no data I can find on how often Alberta issues these. I would guess there is little prospect of meaningful penalties so employers are most likely to create a policy (e.g., by downloading one from the web) and otherwise ignore the new requirement.
  3. Enforcement: Alberta has about 130(ish) OHS officers for 160,000(ish) employers. This level of resourcing is inadequate to meaningfully enforce the existing OHS laws. Consequently, OHS focuses its efforts on big-ticket items (e.g., fatalities, repeat offenders, bad industries). Absent more resources, it is unlikely harassment will get much attention unless there is a complaint. Complaints are, frankly, unlikely. Workers aren’t stupid and will see that employers’ ability to argue “tough management” combined with the absence of meaningful penalties means this Bill creates a right to be free of harassment that they will not be able to realize. This is the same dynamic that drives workers to not refuse unsafe work or report wage theft: they know there is little chance their report will help them out and it may make things worse.
To be fair, this Bill serves an important hortatory and educative purpose: it publically condemns this behaviour and says it is up to employers to stop it. But to make real change in the workplace is going to require government enforcement activity.

As a trade unionist, I wonder if this Bill gives firmer footing for work refusals when there is significant harassment? Specifically, could a group of workers (unionized or otherwise) collectively refuse to work for a harassing boss (i.e., wildcat) and claim such action is protected action under the OHS Code? And how would this play out in a small workplace, such as a restaurant or retail operation?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 18, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: It's Not My Place

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “It’s not my place (in a 9 to 5 world)” by the Ramones. This 1981 song is basically a rejection of the pressure to buckle down and conform to expectations (good school, good job, good girl). 

Instead, Joey Ramone wants to cut his own figure:
Don't wanna be a working stiff
Lose my identity
'Cause when it comes
To working 9 to 5
There ain't not place for me
Ain't my reality to me
This isn’t a great song (it is no The KKK Took my Baby Away) and videos from the early ‘80s are often awful. But the song does a decent job of capturing the anti-conformity tone of punk.

My mom and dad are always fighting
And it's getting very unexciting
To get a good job
You need a proper schooling
Now who the hell
Do ya think you're fooling

But it's not my place oh no
No it's not my place no no
No it's not my not my not my place
In the 9 to 5 world
And it's not my place
In the 9 to 5 world

And it's not my place
with 9 to 5 girl
It's not my place
In the 9 to 5 world

Hangin' out with Lester Bangs you all
And Phil Spector really has it all
Uncle Floyd shows on the T.V.
Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, 10cc

But it's not my place

Don't wanna be a working stiff
Lose my identity
'Cause when it comes
To working 9 to 5
There ain't not place for me
Ain't my reality to me

Vin Scelsa's on the radio
Ramones are hangin' out in Kokomo
Roger Corman's on a talk show
With Allan Arkush and Stephen King
You know
But it's not my place

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, November 17, 2016

UManitoba strike a glimpse of things to come in Alberta

As Alberta moves towards a model where academic staff will have the right to strike (and employers will have the right to lockout), the ongoing strike at the University of Manitoba is being closely watched.

There are several issues that drove Manitoba profs to declare bargaining was at an impasse and walk off the job. They include salary, workload escalation, protections against performance indicators, and job security for new instructors and librarians. The government of Manitoba did not help matters when it issued an edict of no wage increases just as bargaining was reaching a sticking point.

So far, the strike appears to be stable and the University of Manitoba is coming under pressure form its students (who are concerned about the erosion of their education). Tuesday, the university urged faculty members to accept its most recent offer and return to work until March in order to not negatively affect students.

“Oh think of the children” has a nice rhetorical ring (and obscures that concerns about eroding educational quality are at the heart of the strike). But the university cannot possibly be so na├»ve as to think faculty would throw away their leverage (which increases with each lost instructional day) in order to sign a lousy deal and be right back where they were in March—when job action will have little effect on the university which will be winding down for the summer.

The university is also seeking to undermine the authority of the union elected executive with a call to have the union present a clearly unacceptable offer to its membership. The university’s hope is to drive a wedge in the union membership and maybe induce some faculty to cross the picket line. Negotiations resumed Wednesday afternoon.

It will be very interesting to see how university administrators and faculty—who have no real experience with strike-lockout—comport themselves during the first few strikes in work stoppages in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Employers nervous about Alberta WCB review

Alberta is reviewing it workers’ compensation system for the first time in 15 years. A few weeks ago, Merit Contractors started a campaign with the basic message is that business is opposed to increased operating costs:
The government’s intended direction is clear: it wants to make it easier to file claims and expand the number of claims that are covered. As a result, WCB premiums are inevitably going to go up.

Together with the carbon tax and minimum wage hike, this is yet another cost for small businesses at a time when they simply can’t afford it. Some will be able to bear the burden, but others won’t. 
Business owners who have spent years building their dream may watch it slip away. Ordinary Albertans will suffer too, with even more people losing their jobs.
This campaign is pretty typical of the corporate-conservative pushback against the NDs. Whether such a campaign resonates with employers is an open question. It paints employers as more concerned with their bottom line than their employees’ health and well-being. Supporting this campaign doesn’t exactly scream “we’re an employer of choice”.

Last week, the review panel released an interim progress report. Its consultation has generated about 2000(!) responses so far and a final report is due in April. A key theme the committee has flagged is a purported shift away from the Meredith principles and towards an insurance model as a source of a number of difficulties. That sounds quite abstract and bloodless, until you read down a few pages and get to this paragraph (I’ve broken the text up a bit to facilitate reading--it is worth your time).
There are people who describe their experiences with the WCB claims process in positive terms. Many others describe their experiences in very negative terms, such as “disrespectful”, “angering”, “frustrating” and even “dehumanizing”.

A widespread view is that the WCB operates its claims process in a way that presumes injured workers are lying about their injuries or illnesses, and looks for any possible reason to deny an injured worker’s claim, lower their compensation, refuse their requests and “cut them off”.

Some feel the WCB deliberately makes its process complex so that injured workers will abandon their claims out of frustration. For example, it is said the WCB will demand injured workers obtain information (such as notes from physicians) to “prove” their condition and its relationship to their employment, only to be told the information they have provided is “still not good enough”.

Others feel the WCB’s culture is focused on saving money rather than compensating injured workers. They say this is evident in the way some WCB personnel display rudeness and a lack of compassion when communicating with injured workers and managing their claims.

Still others characterize the WCB as a bully, saying it abuses its authority by routinely threatening to terminate workers’ benefits if they dare to question its demands. Compounding this, it is said that the WCB’s decision- making process is not clear to people, which further fuels distrust, anger and frustration. (p.7)
The committee also flagged presumptive status, an employer obligation to accommodate returning workers in a meaningful way, and the WCB’s approach to return-to-work as issues requiring more attention. On RTW:
Sometimes workers are assessed as ready to return even though they do not personally feel ready, or their personal physician says they are not ready, or the employer believes they are not ready. Some people say that the WCB ignores such concerns and deems the worker fit to return anyway.

This forces the worker to make a choice between losing their benefits or returning to the workforce and risking their health; and it forces the employer to re-integrate a worker whom they believe should not be there and might pose a safety risk to others. (p.10)
On benefits and premiums, the committee notes:
  1. The current insurable earnings cap may need review.
  2.  Earnings might be calculated more inclusively.
  3. The process by which the WCB deems workers to be earning money (and thus cuts their benefits) may be problematic.
  4. WCB premium incentive schemes may drive undesirable employer behaviour.
These topics will likely raise some eyebrows at Merit. That said, I don’t think that Merit can reasonably claim WCB premiums will be going up if even if radical changes were implemented.

I say this because the WCB annually rebates hundreds of millions of dollars to employers (e.g., $507m in 2015 and $467m in 2016) based on accumulated surpluses. Employers may not get a big surplus cheque each year, but premiums will likely stay stable.

Overall, I thought the interim report was very even-handed. It gave voice to a number of important worker criticisms of how the WCB operates that the Tories managed to stifle for the last 20 years. It delved into systemic issues that reinforce the insurance culture of the WCB (premium schemes). Yet it makes no promises and draws no conclusions as the consultation is still going on.

One way to read the tea leaves of this report is that major changes in the culture and operation of the WCB may be required. If I were a Board member or senior executive in the WCB (i.e., the people who set the direction and tone), the implicit condemnation of the WCB's approach in this report might make me a bit nervous. I wonder what kind of push-back the review committee is getting from the WCB?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 11, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Nothin' To Die For

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Nothin’ to Die For” by Tim McGraw. On the surface, this song is about alcoholism and how it ruining the subject’s life. Overall, it is a pretty vanilla take on addiction designed to tug at the heart strings of country music fans without offering much insight.

The work-related piece is the second verse (which is the most interesting part of the song):
So what's the harm in a little fun?
'Cause you're off to work before the sun everyday
And the inbox/outbox locks you in
And the money you make ain't worth the time you spend to make your pay
The doctor says, "Man, your numbers - they don't lie."
The graveyard's full of folks that didn't have time to die
This verse sheds a bit of light on one factor that is driving the worker to drink: his job requires him to be at work long hours. He feels trapped (“the inbox/outbox locks you in”) and wishes he didn’t have to trade so much of his (finite) time to earn a living. Not surprisingly, he drinks to cope with this stress.

I’m not saying this is a great song: its strikes me as bible-bet, boot-strap, flag wavin' country music that you might hear on the first album by an American Idol runner up. Certainly there was scope to examine addictions with more nuance. But acknowledging the link between “bad” jobs and addiction does a service.

I noticed a few weeks ago that employers were using the impending decriminalization of marijuana to once again bang the drug-testing drum. Basically, they are concerned that workers will start arriving at their jobs stoned (cause every time a new liquor store opens, we all show up wrecked on chardonnay…?).

What many of these employers (generally in the petroleum and construction industries) don’t want to discuss is how the way in which they structure work (long hours, boring, lengthy periods of isolation) may contribute to drug an alcohol usage rates among their workers.

Stopped to have a few at five
Now you're crossing that center line for the third time
Second time like this this week, had a friend ask you for your keys
You said, "No, I'm fine."
You sure do act like you ain't got a thing to lose
But every car you pass might be the one you take with you

You'd give your last breath to your wife
Take a bullet for your kids
Lay your life down for your country, for your Jesus, for your friends
There's a whole lot of things you say you're living for
Well, you've got to fight it somehow, stop and turn around
'Cause this ain't nothin' to die for

So what's the harm in a little fun?
'Cause you're off to work before the sun everyday
And the inbox/outbox locks you in
And the money you make ain't worth the time you spend to make your pay
The doctor says, "Man, your numbers - they don't lie."
The graveyard's full of folks that didn't have time to die


Straight through that guardrail up into that white light
You hear a sweet voice saying just this side of the other side
Just this side of the other side


Ain't nothin' to die for
Nothin' to die for
Ain't nothin' to die for, no

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Alberta Labour's 2015/16 annual report

I took a look through Alberta Labour’s 2015/16 annual report last week. Subjectively, this year’s report had much more content than past years. I imagine this reflects the change in government and greater openness around labour matters. There are a couple of things that stand out.

Employment Standards
The number of claims received in 2015/16 jumped to 5400 (from 4700 the year before). About 73% of claims are settled voluntarily (i.e., the employer paid enough to satisfy the employee).

There is a note flagging a sharp rise in claims in late 2015/16 due to an economic downturn. The likely dynamic here is that people don’t file ES claims (for fear of employer retaliation) until after they get sacked so a downturn (i.e., layoffs) means more employees have nothing to lose by trying to recover stolen wages.

The report also notes that employers may be less willing or able to pay owed wages during a downturn. Fewer than half of employment standards claims are settled within 180 days (six months). This may reflect that there are only 45 employment standards officers.

That half of claims run longer than six months may be worrying because of the moving window during which wages can be recovered (basically, if your claim takes too long to resolve, you might not get anything). That said, this number may also reflect that the government counts claims settled and sent to collections as unresolved.

Occupational Health and Safety
Alberta concluded 11 prosecutions for OHS offenses in 2015.16 with fines from $3000-$300,000 ($1.5m total). No comparator data for prosecutions was provided. If you look here, you will see there has been a pretty steady decline in prosecutions and fines over time.

The overall number of inspections dropped slightly from 9600 inspections to 9500 in 2015/16. How many were part of inspection blitzes or were re-inspections (to determine compliance with an order) is hard to tell. I’d guess maybe 5000 (of ~160,000) businesses were inspected last year (happy to be corrected if someone has data).

The number of orders written also declined from 10,000 to 9000. What is interesting is simply the high number of orders, which suggests significant noncompliance with the OHS Code. The report did not disclose the number of OHS inspectors currently employed in Alberta

Enforcement blitzes are one tool the government uses to target industries with high level of injury. The government just finished a three-year blitz of the sand and gravel industry triggered by 16 fatalities in the industry between 2011 and 2014.

The number of written orders (i.e., violations found) per inspection declined by 20% over the three years. This sounds like an improvement but the overall level of noncompliance remains high. If you look at the most recent inspection report, basically only a third of operators were fully compliant after three years of inspections (although the number of stop work orders declined over the three years).

Overall, the modest results of a three-year blitz should raise questions about the effectiveness of the blitz tactic. Blitzes are likely better than nothing. But the temporary nature of the enforcement and compliance focus (versus punishing transgressors) may undermine its utility.

Interestingly, 93% of Alberta workers feel that Alberta workplaces are safe. The measure here gave me paused: respondent choices were “very safe”, “safe”, “not very/at all safe” or “not sure”. So basically you have two positive choices and one negative. I would guess that skews the numbers to look more positive than a Likert scale set of responses might.

Labour Relations
The number of certification applications in Alberta fell by 24% in 2015/16 to an even 100 applications. It is hard to tell the overall trajectory of organizing activity from the data presented.

The average time to getting matters to hearing is 62 days. While this is below the target of 70 days, that it takes two months to get a hearing feeds into the claim by many trade unionists that the Labour Board does not offer an effective avenue for exercising workers’ rights.

Labour Board decisions are also coming slower, with only 54% being issued within 90 days of a hearing concluding (target is 85%). There was an illness in 2015/16 that affected these numbers, but the five-year trend is downward and contributes to the “just delayed is justice denied” sense about the Labour Board. 

There is some effort to blame this on an increase in duty of fair representation complaints (which jumped from 60 to 87). I think that is hokum: most DFRs get punted at the administrative review stage for lack of a prima facie case and because the standard for meeting the DFR is so low. The extra 17 complaints amount to two or three afternoons of adjudication work.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 4, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: I want to be a boss

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “I want to be a boss” by Stan Ridgeway in honor of Donald Trump’s terrifying run at the presidency.

The singer starts out with typical grousing about the class divide in work places (papering over how most managers are also workers). Then it gets weird
I'll grow a long beard and watch
Ice station zebra in the nude
And grow my nails like fu-manchu
Keep a row of specimen jars
The trajectory of the song really makes a point about the ridiculous behaviour of the ultra-rich that the rest of us seem to put up with because the bosses are rich and powerful.

Well, I've been doodling on this notepad
And I been taking telephone calls
I can tell this job's at the end of the line
And I'm ready for the fall
But I been watchin' the boss carefully
And he always seems to be havin' a ball
And then I scratch my head and wonder
Why I'm down here and he's up the hall

Now, all of my paychecks aren't worth
The paper they're printed on
I get 'em friday
But monday they're all gone
There must be some way to change my situation
It's time that I took up a brand new vocation

I wanna take a two-week vacation
Twenty-six times a year, add 'em up
When I fly to exotic places
My jet will be a lear
I'll need several secretaries
Just to jot down notes
I'll wear gucci loafers
And expensive shirts
And blue, executive, exotic coats

'cause i, I said I wanna be a boss
(I wanna be, I wanna be)
I, I said I wanna be a boss
And I'll have people workin' under me
And this lousy job I'll toss
I, I said I wanna be a boss

Well, I'll drive in fancy cars
Well, no, maybe I'll just cruise
With a limo, and a chauffeur,
Tv, telephone, and booze
Tinted windows so the common folk
Can't see me here inside
Maybe every now and then for fun
I'll give some old coot a ride

Then maybe I'll slip him
A thousand dollar bill
Then he'll smile and shake my hand
And I'll put him in my will
I'm gonna count up all my widgets
And digits, and all my stuff
I'll make millions in a day
But it'll never be enough
Nope,not enough!

'cause i, I said I wanna be a boss
And I just wanna take a four-hour lunch
And eat a steak with a1 sauce
I, I said I wanna be a boss
And I'll buy up every stock there is
From itt to doctor ross
I, I said I wanna be a boss
(I wanna be, I wanna be)

Now if I find a product I like
I'll buy up the whole company
Shave my face, and grin and smile
And then I'll sell it on tv
And everyone will know me
I'll be more famous than howard hughes
I'll grow a long beard and watch
Ice station zebra in the nude

And grow my nails like fu-manchu
Keep a row of specimen jars
Get other people to work for me, well
Maybe I'll buy the planet mars, and
Build an amusement park up there
Better than old walt's place
You'll have to be a millionaire to go
We'll smoke cigars and lounge in lace
Talk the talk of businessmen
And bosses that we are
So here's to me, the drinks are free,
'cause I just bought this bar

Yeah, yeah, I wanna be a boss
I wanna be a boss, boss, boss!
Some kinda intergalactic boss!

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Farm workers in western Canada

Last week, I picked up the first copies of “Farm workers in western Canada”, a book I co-edited with Shirley McDonald (UBC) and pubished by the University of Alberta Press. The chapters examine farm work from several perspectives with specific focuses on Alberta farm workers and on foreign migrant workers in Alberta, BC and Manitoba.

The most power chapter is Darlene Dunlop’s “The personal experiences of an Alberta farm worker and activist”. Dunlop is one of the two key players in the Farmworkers Union of Alberta and her story provides insight into the life of a farm worker as well as the struggle for farm worker rights. Here are some excerpts.

On her first job:
This combination of farm, ranch, and feedlot was a little country unto itself and the farmer was its dictator. He owned everything you could see and then some. His favourite expression was “I’m a farmer in Alberta so I can do whatever the fuck I want.” And he usually did. …

I found myself bullied by this farmer. I was operating a pay loader on the roads between fields. He wanted everything done as fast as possible. He would drive behind you honking his horn and waving his arm out the window pushing you to go faster. The problem was that you would lose steering control if you went past a certain speed.

I refused to accelerate. One of my co-workers was pressured to go faster when he found himself in this situation. He lost control and the pay loader flipped over and crushed him to death. Eight farm fatalities were attributed to this farming operation over a twenty year period. That is what comes of no standards, no template for safety.
On children working on farms:
Working there gave me my first opportunity to drive one of those big rigs. It came when the farmer held the keys out. He didn’t care who drove it, me or a nine-year-old boy. … It was common practice to let him drive the big rig on the roads to the fields. He was also tasked with operating large farm equipment, but he could often be seen playing around with it, which was dangerous when there is no roll bar. I wasn’t about to be chauffeured by a nine-year-old, so away I drove. No license, no knowledge, just the keys and the lad as my passenger.
On pesticides:
I had a bad experience with Malathion, a nerve agent to kill bugs. It’s commonly added to grain when transferring it by auger from the truck to a grain bin. …I expressed my concerns to a farmer about using a tuna can and my bare hands to scoop the Malathion out of the bag. He scowled. I asked him if he had ever read the label and told him it says: “Do Not Get on Clothes”. He squatted, scanned the label and its warnings, then left. Upon his return, he presented me with a tuna can attached to a short stick so I wouldn’t have to reach so far into the bag.
On safety:
The owner of the large hay farm expected his workers to do exactly what they were told no matter what. He told Eric to do some welding on a fuel tank; Eric would do it only by the book and was fired. The next worker did not refuse. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. Didn’t he know how dangerous it was? What I do know is that he started the welding job and blew up himself, the shop and all that was in there. The farmer got a new shop and new tools. The farm worker’s wife got a funeral and years in court. The last we heard, this young widow and her children were still in court.
Dunlop’s story is not just a powerful indictment of farming practices in Alberta but also of the lack of political courage by the former Tory government to address them. It reminds us that, when farmers protest the cost of safety and the Wildrose promises to roll back farm safety laws, what they are really doing is transferring the cost of farm safety onto workers in the form of injury and death.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

OHS consultation on gas stations and convenience stores

Last week, I attended a government consultation about occupational health and safety for Alberta gas and convenience store workers. Between June 2015 and March 2016, there were 4 fatalities and 1 serious injury caused by violence and gas-and-dash incidents. There were three interesting things about this consultation.

First, the Minister of Labour attended, stayed for the whole presentation, and participated (I don’t ever recall a Tory minister doing that). There were also four ND MLAs, which suggests to me that action on this issue is imminent (perhaps a private member’s bill along the lines of BC’s Grant’s Law).

Second, this sector is profoundly unsafe. The lost-time claim (LTC) numbers provided suggest there were 11,576 LTCs between 2010 and 2014 (inclusive) across about 2200 employers. Using an annual average of 50,950 person-years worked, I think this means the annual LTC rate (claims per 100 person years worked) was 4.54 (versus a provincial average of 1.26 in 2014).

This rate of injury is crazy high (basically it looks like every employer had a LTC each year!), especially since LTCs represent only a fraction (say 10-20%) of all injuries. Around 0.7% of LTC injuries stem from assaults and violence. The most common causes of injury are over-exertion, bodily reaction, and struck by objects.

Third, there was a general sense that gas pre-payment (either at the pump or in store) was an acceptable safety measure for the government to impose (about 77% of stations have pay-at-the-pump technology installed). There are 12 reported cases of fuel theft per day in Alberta and pre-payment would eliminate them. That said, there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal that fuel theft is a significant source of injury.

By contrast, violence seems to be more of an issue in this sector. According to one hand out, there were 83 assaults resulting in LTCs from 2011-2015. More broadly, there appear to have been 750 victims of crime in this sector (victims include both workers and bystanders) in 2012.

Interestingly, there was little interest among employers in installing barriers between workers and customers. Employers cited ineffectiveness, cost, operational disruptions, and the off-putting experience of barriers for customers as reasons not to implement barriers.

I could not find any peer-reviewed literature on the efficacy of barriers in retail establishments. Barriers separating cab drivers from customers seem to reduce injuries. Obviously barriers are not a perfect form of hazard control (workers have to leave the cage eventually) but barriers seem to offer some protection from violence. The one study cited in the presentation was summarized as barriers showed mixed results. This looked like a consultant’s report so the quality of its evidence is unknown.

Violence prevention plans were touted by industry representatives as a better alternative than barriers. The literature seems to suggest that these programs do reduce the chance of robbery. But robbery is only one source of workplace violence.

Indeed, in looking at US convenience store homicides, one study found basically 80% of homicides had no robbery motive. This suggests that robbery prevention does not necessarily result in violence prevention (although it may reduce robbery-related violence).

One of the take-aways from the session for me was that hazard-control costs (both the initial investment and the effect on operations) remain a significant issue for employers. I was also struck by how the broad consensus sat uncomfortably with the data.

Specifically, there was broad acceptance of requiring gas pre-payment but little evidence that gas-and-dash was meaningfully associated with injury. Basically, pay-at-the-pump likely won’t make workplaces much safer (although it will reduce fuel theft).

At the same time, violence appears to be a much more significant risk than gas-and-dash. And there is some evidence barriers work to reduce injuries. Yet, there was little appetite for requiring barriers between workers and the public.

Despite that disappointing outcome, overall, I was heartened by the consultation. It was positive, clearly important the government, and there was a broad diversity of voices at the table.

-- Bob Barnetson