Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Research: Safety crimes in Alberta's O&G industry

Last week I had a chance to re-read an MA thesis I have been saving for awhile. “Bloody Oil: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Safety Crimes in the Alberta Oil and Gas Industry” comes from the Department of Criminology at UOttawa.

This study is notable in two ways. First, it conceptualizes safety violations as crimes (rather than regulatory offences). Framing the injury of workers as a crime sits uneasily with the mainstream view of occupational injuries as uncommon, unpreventable, and (regrettably) economically necessary.

The idea that workplace injuries are caused by so-called accidents reflects that the “perps” are upstanding members of the community (corporations) doing legitimate work where responsibility for the injury is often diffuse and hard to see. Shooting someone in the head is murder. But decapitating someone on the job because of a decision to delay cable replacement is an accident. Added to this is the widely accepted notion that “workers accepted the risk” when they took the job and responsibility for injury is subtly shifted to the worker.

Second, it applies this framing to Alberta’s oil-and-gas industry, the upstream portion of which (basically dinosaurs to the refinery gate) has a real cowboy culture. You can see an analysis of that culture in the book chapter “Working hard and staying safe: Drilling rig hands in Alberta”.

The economic importance of the oil-and-gas industry in Alberta meant that the conservative government largely turned a blind eye to workplace safety (to be fair, the Tories did a poor job on workplace safety in general). The study examines court documents, fatality reports, and safety awareness campaigns to tease out how serious injury and death are officially conceptualized.

The upshot of the study is that injuries are typically framed as the fault of the worker. Blaming the worker has a long pedigree (as we’ll see in Friday’s post) and the careless worker myth has been evident in many Alberta safety campaigns over the years. If the worker is to blame, then the employer must be (mostly) innocent and there is little reason to identify root causes of injury found in the structure of work. Where remediation is possible, it is focused on worker behaviour.
In a way, workers face a catch-22 in comparison to employers who are described in more general or descriptive terms: if a worker is well-trained and experienced, they have no excuse for not being able to avoid harm; if they are un-trained or inexperienced, then their carelessness is simply and quickly used as an explanation for what occurred. (p.61).
Injuries are also represented as non-serious and non-violent offenses. Investigations generally don’t look for root causes (found in the structure of work), instead focusing on proximate causes of injury. Where employers are found to have violated the law, they often receive creative sentences, whereby they make a socially beneficial donation (which is tax deductable) and then look to be good corporate citizens. The level of the fine and that it is levied on the corporation (rather than an individual) may also attenuate the impact of the fine on future behaviour. This, in turn, reinforces treating injury events as regulatory offences, rather than as crimes. Injuries are caused by accidents, rather than a chain of decisions leading to an unsafe workplace.

Overall, this is a very useful piece of research. It examines in depth how serious injuries and fatalities in the oil-and-gas industry are dismissed as unavoidable accidents that are likely the fault of the worker anyhow. We see a similar framing in newspaper reports of workplace injury, which dial down public concern by noting that injuries are under investigation or before the courts or are simply human tragedies (for which no one is really at fault).

The question going forward is whether Alberta’s New Democratic government will adequately resource and politically empower OHS inspectors to raise the cost of injury to employers to the point where employers make structural changes in their workplace.

-- Bob Barnetson

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