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Pushing back: How to make Alberta workplaces safer
AUPE Occupational Health and Safety Conference, April 28, Edmonton
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson
You’ve all probably seen a swing-stage scaffold. It's that big long metal platform that they hang over the side of tall buildings when they are washing windows or replacing them. It’s got the ropes and pulleys on either end and usually a little motor and goes up and down?
So it’s Christmas Eve, 2009. And there are six workers repairing balconies on a Toronto high-rise. The men are all newcomers to Canada—from Latvia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. And they don’t speak much English. The project supervisor is Vadim Kazenelson. He was on one of the balconies handing the workers tools.
There were only two lifelines on that scaffold. And only one worker was tied off. For some reason, Kazenelson jumped from the balcony onto the scaffold. And the impact caused the scaffold to split in two. Kazenelson managed to climb back onto the balcony. And he pulled up the one worker who was wearing a lifeline.
The other five workers fell 13 stories—more than hundred feet.
Four died. And one was permanently and horrifically injured.
The OHS investigation that followed revealed that the scaffold was faulty. It hadn't been designed or inspected properly by the scaffolding company. And the workers—remember, they didn't speak much English—hadn’t been trained on working at heights or the use of fall protection. And, even if they had, the employer didn’t bother supplying enough lifelines.
During the investigation, Kazenelson tried to cover a lot of stuff up. He gave the worker who was tied on an English-language safety manual (he didn’t read English) and told him to say that Kazenelson had been on the ground when the scaffolding broke.
Six years later, in 2015, prosecutions in the case finally wrapped up. The scaffold supplier got dinged $400k. The construction company employing the men was fined $750k. And Kazenelson got three-and-a-half years in jail.
This case is one of the few instances I’ve seen where a workplace injury resulted in a successful prosecution and jail time. Despite that, I mostly think of this case as an example of how the health and safety system is a failure.
Anyone want to guess why we think the case is an example of a failure?
In my view, the system clearly punished the employers. But mostly the punishment was monetary---and employers treat that as the cost of doing business. The one guy who got jail time was the lowest-ranking supervisor. But, most importantly, the system failed to prevent injury and death. And that’s the actual purpose of an occupational health and safety system.
So you often hear about how Alberta workplaces are getting safer. The injury stats that these claims are based on are deceptive. Employers and governments normally use lost-time claim rates as their main measure of injury. A lost-time claim is an accepted WCB claim where a worker could not go work the next day due to an injury and got wage-loss benefits from the WCB.
Over time, we’ve seen the number of lost-time claims drop significantly. But it’s not clear if that reflects safer workplaces or employers gaming the system—perhaps by pressuring workers not to file claims. Because that lowers employers WCB premiums.
A further problem with lost-time claims is that they only record a small fraction of all injuries. It ignores injuries not accepted by the WCB. It ignores injuries where the worker could go to work but had to have modified duties because they were hurt. It ignores injuries that required a trip to the doctor, but no time off. It ignores all minor injuries and most occupational diseases. And it ignores any time-loss injury that should be reported but wasn’t—which might be 40-70% of all injuries.
Setting aside those concerns about the validity the lost-time claim measures, they still shows us there were 25,000 serious injuries in Alberta last year—injuries so serious that the worker couldn’t go to work the next day. And that tells us that Alberta workplaces are really dangerous. And it also tells us the government’s injury-prevention system doesn't really work: 25,000 serious injuries a year is a catastrophe. There is no other way to view those numbers.
So why is the OHS system broken? Well, the bottom line is it’s designed to fail. The current system is 46 year olds—the same age as me! It started in Saskatchewan in 1971 and was built by Bob Sass. Alberta followed suit in 1973.
The crux of the internal responsibility system is the three safety rights: the rights to know, participate, and refuse. These rights were seen as a huge victory for workers in the 1970. Because, for the first time, they gave us some real ability to address deeply unsafe workplaces.
As a result, workplaces today are safer. There are fewer worker deaths per capita today than there were in the early 1970s. Mind you, we’re still killing the same number of workers each year—there are more workers to spread the deaths across.
The key question we should ask is whether today’s workplaces are safe enough? And 25,000 lost-time claims we saw last year suggests the answer is no. And the reason for this is that the designers of the IRS system made two mistakes that undermine the system’s potential to make workplaces safe.
The first problem is that the system downplays the significance of the power imbalance at work between workers and employers.
The second problem is that the system ignores the motivation and ability of employers to thwart the efforts of workers to make their workplace safer.
Basically the IRS system was designed with the idea that both employers and workers have an equal interest in keeping workers safe. As it turns out, workers are much more interested in safe workplaces than employers are. But workers have much less power to do anything about that than employers do.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying employers are going out, happily hurting their workers. They are human, too, and don’t want to see anyone get hurt. The problem is that employers have other priorities that distract them and shape their decisions about safety.
In the case of private-sector employers, their interest is in profit and productivity. Employers have to profit and fail. And they try to shift costs away from their business. For the public sector, it is productivity and the ongoing pressure to keep costs down so politicians can keep taxes down. These priorities shape how much safety employers want to pay for.
This design flaw has real consequences. For example, we have performed relatively better on acute safety issues over time – preventing slips, falls, that kind of thing. However, we have made absolutely no progress at all on preventing occupational disease.
That’ s because acute injuries have an immediate cost for employers: lost productivity and higher WCB premiums. By contrast, occupational diseases don’t affect employers. Symptoms can take decades to appear. When they do, the workers who are affected are long gone.
In fact, employers are motivated to resist fixing things that cause disease, like exposure to carcinogens, because the fix is usually more expensive for the employer than letting workers get injured. Eliminating hazards or segregating workers from hazards is costly.
So, in practice, employers usually address biological or chemical hazards by equipping workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is demonstrably less effective at protecting workers than other controls. So why use PPE? Because it’s cheaper. For employers.
Employers’ have also tried to make the system work in their favour by changing the rules of the game. In the 1980s, the governments were pretty active at enforcement—much to the annoyance of employers. And in the 1990s, employers started a vigorous campaign to roll back enforcement. And Ralph Klein was right their with budget cuts to help them. And suddenly we were “partners in safety”, except it was an abusive, one-sided relationship.
The upshot is that today we have about 130 enforcement officers – AUPE members who care a lot about their jobs and the 10,000 inspections they do every year. The problem is that we have 150,000 or more employers in Alberta. So the inspection cycle for your average workplace is once a generation or less. The result is that only the worst and most obvious hazards are dealt with and most employers can do whatever they want. Unless you kill or maim a worker, its unlikely you’ll ever see an OHS inspector on your job site.
Employers have also used their power and influence to shape the nature of OHS regulations. And they use their power in the workplace to curtail worker efforts to do more about safety. So, workplaces are safer now than they were – no question – but they are not safe.
So how do employers get away with that? An important tactic they use is to blame workers for their injuries. This idea that workers are stupid or lazy or careless is everywhere—even in government injury prevention materials. It focuses our attention on workers’ behaviour and the proximate (or immediate) cause of an injury. In doing that, it obscures structural factors that are the root (or real) cause of injury.
Basically, the careless worker myth renders invisible how employers contribute to injuries by designing job to include hazards.
This is a 2008 video the government produced aimed at young workers. There are six of these—we’re going to watch the shoe-store video. It is a touch gory but not too bad. But if that freaks you out, just avert your eyes for 90 seconds. Don’t worry if you can’t hear the audio—just watch the video and story it tells. And ask yourself who is at fault for this injury? And how it could have been prevented?
The message here is pretty clear: the worker wore unsafe shoes, climbed a rickety ladder, over-reached, and fell. What a dummy. Now let’s watch the video again and ask yourself what could the employer have done to prevent that injury. Anyone have some ideas?
- Ladder: Ladder was employer-supplied equipment that was clearly defective. Employer should have identified this hazard and replaced it. $100 fix
- Light fixture: Light was unguarded and vulnerable to breakage. Employer should have caged it. $20 fix
- Stock room: Stock was stacked up high and unstable. Employer likely needed a bigger stock room to lower the stacks and maybe also better shelving. Both of those are costly fixes and trading retail space for stock space reduces sales.
- Clothing: Worker works in a shoe store so likely faces employer pressure to wear fancy shoes. She’s not going to keep the job if she’s wearing flats with a ladder-safe tread. So the employer could have mandated safer shoes or prohibited ladder work on heels.
- Working alone: We don’t see this hazard clearly but this worker is likely working alone. So she is vulnerable—if she gets hurt there is no one to call for help and she may also be at greater risk of robbery or assault. The employer should double up staffing. But that doubles labour costs. And tin the minds of employers, that’s “not reasonably practicable”.
Note the questions that the injured worker asks about how her employer could have prevented the injury. This video preceded the Alberta video and it shows you how hard Alberta worked to incorporate blaming the worker into its videos.
So this is a pretty gloomy presentation so far! Let’s change tracks and focus on what we can do to make workplaces healthier and safer. The solution starts in the past. We need to take back OHS as a bargaining issue, as an activism issue, and as a political issue.
The laws of the 1970s didn’t just come out of nowhere. Part of the history that I left out – and is usually left out – is that the 1960s were marked with strikes – in some cases wildcats – over safety. Rank and file workers knew work was killing them. Their employers were killing them. And they mobilized to force their employers to do something about it. In Canada, Elliott Lake is the example to look up.
Their unions were, at first, reluctant to do that. But, as Ralph said, smart politicians figure out where the parade is going and get in front. And the unions eventually got on board and started agitating governments for legal changes. That lobbying and pressure resulted in OHS laws and the system we have today. Which aren’t perfect but are agood start.
The problem is that we thought we had won. When really things had just gotten started.
Over the last 40 years, we’ve allowed OHS to become professionalized. There is an entire industry of consultants, safety officers, and technical experts who have emerged to show us how to “be safe”. And a good portion of work is about shifting blame and responsibility from employers—where it belongs—onto workers.
Even in our unions, we’ve delegated safety to a sub-set of our activists and staff. They are without a doubt committed, dedicated, smart people. But they are often left to do their “safety thing” in the corner.
The answer to this is that safety has to become an issue for all of us. And I don’t mean we all have to make sure we work safely – although we do. I mean that agitating and advocating and arguing and fighting for safety needs to become something we all do.
You don’t need to know how to calculate load ratings for harnesses. Or what the toxicological reports say about a chemical. Or the physiological effects of shift work.
You just need to know EVERY job has dangers. And that more can be done to remove those dangers. And then we need to have the determination to work with our co-workers and union brothers and sisters to force the employer to do more.
It is about organizing. And to be honest, that is the only way any worker issue will get fixed. Ever. The clear lesson of labour history is that employers don’t give shit about you. They don’t. So we need to shift the power balance at work so the system works the way Bob Sass intended. And that takes all of us.
Now people—very powerful people—aren’t going to like that.
Think back to the 2013 jail-guard wildcat. There were a lot of issues there, but that was a safety strike. The government came down hard—in part because the escalation of the wildcat strike profoundly challenged the government’s authority.
If the government had gotten a court and directed cops to arrest jail guards and court house staff and the cops had refused, the government would have effectively lost control of the province. That shit makes governments—especially authoritarian governments like the Tories—very angry and very scared.
And, job actions like that also make unions nervous. Union executives don’t like real wildcat strikes because its shows that they don’t have control over their members. Phony wildcats are totally cool. But real ones hints that the exec are in the wrong side of an issue.
Think back to the 1995 laundry worker’s strike in Calgary. That resistance to the Klein cuts got squashed, in part, by the union leaderships. Because an all-out fight wasn’t want the union leadership wanted. In retrospect—as a civil servant—an all-out fight might have been a good thing. Cause the last 20 years have sucked.
It also takes time to build organizational commitment to things like workplace injury. Most of us don’t really want to think about it. It is really uncomfortable to realize that our employer might well be poisoning us. Or exposing us to dangers that could kill us. Or are happy to have managers bully us into working harder. Because how do we fight back? Do we refuse unsafe work? In theory ,the employer can’t punish for that. But the reality is that refusing is a career-limiting move.
One place to start is organizing within bargaining units and work groups around health and safety. Maybe identify a safety issue that is easy for the employer to fix: loose carpet, uncomfortable temperature, noise, lighting.
Ideally you want an issue affecting a popular worker (or everyone) and you wanna have a sympathetic manager. Then build some support for the issue among the work group. Then politely confront the manager with both the problem and the solution. Or, better yet, get the workers to make the pitch.
The report the win back to the workers. A win helps build confidence and commitment. Then pick a harder issue and repeat.
Eventually, the employer’s gonna push back. But, by that time, workers will be used to winning. And they’ll have internalized the ideas that they have a right to a safe workplace and that they have collective power. That’s the time for an escalation: maybe threaten to call OHS or take some very minor job action.
Bringing an issue up every single day, that’s really disruptive. And its upsetting to employers because it confronts them with the fact that they are acting immorally. This isn’t some regulatory violation. They are threatening our health and our lives and that wrong.
Or have the workers do a safety audit. There’s lots of things you can do. The point is to have a plan. Because what you’re building is a culture of injury prevention and empowerment in the workforce—one that’s separate from the tedious management safety crap that we normally have to endure.
This culture is contagious—especially if you start claiming the victories in meetings with other work groups. It builds the kind of support needed for pushing a bigger issue, like a harassing manager or structural hazard.
I think I’m going to stop here and open up the floor. Anyone have experience about improving safety they want to share--a success or a failure. Or maybe you think I’m full of crap and wanna have go? I’m up for that.
-- Bob Barnetson