Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hazard assessments and COVID-19

One of the challenges employers face is operating safely during COVID-19. In Alberta, employers have an obligation to identify and control hazards. Usually, hazard assessments are private processes, known only to the employer, some employees and (if there is one) the joint health and safety committee.

Recently, an Alberta employer (Prairie Dog Brewing) made an interesting post where they talked through some of the COVID-19 hazards they have identified as the think about re-opening, possible controls, and their eventual decision. This post is interesting for a couple of reasons:
  1. The owners walk through both obvious (serving customers) and less obvious (dishwashing) hazards in some details.
  2. The post then explores possible controls for the hazards and how effective they will be. This analysis is very thoughtful.
  3. In the end, the owners decide to adopt an elimination control by not opening for sit-down service, rather than opening using PPE (which is likely not very effective but probably would meet the legal minimum).
  4. The owners discuss explicitly the costs associated with their control options and how this influences their decision making. While primarily financial, these costs alsl include staff resistance and customer violence.
  5. The owners examine how businesses face an incentive not to report positive COVID cases and suggests public policy measure that might solve this problem.
For OHS students, this post represents a candid peak behind the curtain at a hazard assessment as applied in the real world.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sex work, income support and COVID-19

LBST 415 (Sex work and sex workers) spends a lot of time examining the ways in which different jurisdictions regulate sex work and sex workers. There are a number of different models.

Canada has adopted the Nordic model, wherein the sale of sex is not (usually) illegal but the purchase of sexual services is. In theory, this model is designed to extinguish demand for sexual services while making it possible for sex workers to access police help if necessary. In practice, neither of these outcomes occurs.

New Zealand, by contrast, has decriminalized sexual services. Sex workers are able to access all of the normal protections that workers access. The research suggests that this seems to offer the best outcomes for sex workers.

COVID-19 offers an interesting lens through which to view and assess these models. In Canada, sex workers are reporting that their income had dropped significantly as a result of the pandemic. Further, sex workers indicate they either don’t qualify for or are too afraid to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

For example, people who engage in sex work on the side to top up their (inadequate) disability payments (in order to feed their kids) are concerned that applying on the CERB could later come back to affect their disability payments (because applying indicates income over $5000). Applying on the CERB also requires sharing banking information, which could be used to track back to their clients.

These concerns reflect the stigma and persecution that sex workers continue to experience in Canada, despite the decriminalization of selling sexual services. As a result of declining income, sex workers may consider accepting riskier clients (thus heightening sex workers’ risk of injury or death). Economically forcing sex workers to continue to work during a pandemic also puts them at risk for infection.

By contrast, sex workers in New Zealand had full and immediate access to New Zealand’s emergency wage subsidy. New Zealand sex workers are also immediately eligible for job-seeker benefits (basically EI in Canada) if the decide they wish to leave sex work and seek other employment. Canadian sex workers would not qualify for EI and, if they did, would be forced to endure a waiting period. This is not to suggest the conditions of sex work are perfect in New Zealand, but simply the New Zealand model seems to offer better working conditions for sex workers.

While debate over the best regulatory model for sex work often focuses on working conditions and financial outcomes for sex workers and concerns about community effects, COVID-19 highlights that sex work (like all work) is entangled in a complex web of issues of policy issues. The ability of New Zealand sex workers to stop-out of sex work during the pandemic highlights how labour market policy and income support (which largely ignore sex worker in Canada) affect sex workers’ ability to control the conditions under which they work and how this has knock-on effects for people who have little or no direct contact with sex workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Cargill as a teaching case

A friend and I were chatting the other day about the ongoing occupational health and safety (OHS) problems at the Cargill meat-processing plant in High River. More than half of the 2000 workers at the plant have contracted COVID-19 and, subsequently, spread it to family members. One worker and one family member have died.

Cargill would make an interesting teaching case for an OHS class because it exemplifies so many of the tensions and trends that OHS practitioners have to grapple with. In no particular order and off the top of my head:

1. Hazard control: Workplace design is an important factor in this outbreak (close proximity) and the employer had chosen controls (basically PPE) that are at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls (cheapo and less effective) to avoid having to redesign the work.

2. Internal responsibility system: Workers flagged COVID concerns to the employer early in the pandemic and the employer under-responded, resulting in worker injury. This is evidence of the limited effectiveness of the IRS.

3. State inspection: Alberta’s inspection (via FaceTime) of the plant in response to complaints was inadequate and green-lit the employer for continued operations when the plant wasn’t safe. This is evidence that Alberta’s inspection regime is basically ineffective (this pattern is evident elsewhere in Canada).

4. Refusals: While Cargill workers are not yet refusing unsafe work, refusals in COVID are being denied in several jurisdictions. This demonstrate the practical weakness of workers’ safety rights, which are individual. The right to collective action (including mid-term strikes) might be much more effective at protecting workers.

5. Penalties: We’ll have to see how the government’s investigation plays out, but I would bet Cargill gets off with effectively no sanctions. Creating a law that fails to punish likely contributes to employer’s disregarding the law.

6. Injury recognition and disease: Some forms of injury have greater recognition than other. Employer responses to COVID have been inadequate, in part because injury causation is a bit murky (did you get it at work or in the community?). WCB compensation is also going to be interesting to watch.

7. Precarious work: Broadly speaking, employment precarity appears to increase workers’ exposure to COVID. Cargill’s workers, although unionized and eligible for CERB during the shut down, face profound economic pressure to return to work.

8. Precarious citizenship: The Cargill workers who are temporary foreign workers have effectively no choice but to go back to work for Cargill because of their restricted labour mobility. This is a good example of intersectionality where precarious employment and precarious citizenship compound workers’ vulnerability to employer misbehaviour.

9. Racialized workers: Most Cargill workers are either new resident or temporary foreign workers. Some of the discourse around this outbreak has been racist, with efforts to blame cultural practices (which are really just rational responses to economic exploitation) for the spread of the disease.

10. Public health: There isn’t a bright line between occupational and public health hazards. COVID caught at work has spread into the community and into other workplaces. But the linkages between OHS and public health have been limited. And public health’s engagement with employers has seemed na├»ve.

11. Profit: The underlying driver of Cargill’s behaviour has been maintaining production (and thus profit-making). Some of the costs of this are being externalized onto workers in the form of ill health.

This case would make a fascinating teaching case to carry through an entire OHS course. It also suggests that things at Cargill are so bad that it reveals Alberta’s OHS system as a sham.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Injury data shows no improvement in Alberta

April 28 was the Day of Mourning for Injured and Killed workers. As usual, academics from the University of Regina released a report on workplace fatality and injury rates. Due to delays in reporting, the data in the 2020 report is based upon accepted workers’ compensation claims from 2018.

There are a number of methodological caveats that go with these numbers. The key one is that the data represents accepted WCB claims, rather than the true number of work-related fatalities and deaths. Fatalities are likely 10-13 times higher than the WCB numbers. An all encompassing injury count could be similarly out by an order of magnitude, although serious injuries (which is the focus of this WCB injury data in this report) are probably 2 to 3 times higher than reported (although this will vary by jurisdiction).

Among the larger provinces (>100k workers), Saskatchewan and Alberta again led the pack in terms of the injury-related fatality rate (deaths per 100,000) in 2018, with 5.1 and 3.8 respectively. Most jurisdictions saw increases in their rate over the previous three-year average, with Manitoba (241%), Nova Scotia (137% and Saskatchewan (65% should the greatest percentage increases.

Newfoundland and Labrador (8.7), Nova Scotia (5.1) and Alberta (3.9) had the highest rates of occupational disease related deaths in 2018. Again, rates went up everywhere.

Lost-time claim rates (LTCs being a proxy for serious injuries) were also broadly up in 2018, with Manitoba, BC and Saskatchewan with the highest rates. The greatest increases were seen in Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta.

Table 2 looks at the absolute number of fatalities by jurisdiction, You’ll see that Alberta has the highest number of injury-related fatalities and the third-highest number of disease-related fatalities, despite being the fourth most populous province.

These numbers sit uneasily with Alberta’s five-year average lost-time claim rate (Table 11), which is among the lowest in Canada.

The most probable explanation for this is that there is a high level of under-reporting of serious injuries in Alberta (several studies have found that about two-thirds of serious injuries are not reported in Alberta).

What this suggests is that Alberta’s injury data is likely not valid (i.e., it is misleading) and workplaces are much less safe than this data (which is used in government annual reports) would suggest.

Even if we accept Alberta’s data is valid, Figures 2 and 11 indicate there has been little improvement in Alberta’s fatality and injury rates over the past decade.

This, in turn, suggests that neither employers nor the government have made workplaces significantly safer. Put another way, the maiming and killing of workers remains acceptable to politicians and employers.

-- Bob Barnetson