Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Alberta OHS consultation foreshadows weaker safety rules

Alberta is undertaking another consultation about its Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws. The OHS Act was last overhauled in 2017, more than 40 years after it was first enacted. According to the government website, the topics under review are how to:
  • strengthen the Internal Responsibility System
  • enable innovation
  • clarify accountabilities
The rationale for the review is:
…some stakeholders raised concerns that the changes made the OHS requirements more prescriptive and burdensome, and introduced new processes that affect how OHS is addressed in Alberta workplaces and how government services and enforcement are delivered.
It is unclear who these concerned stakeholders were.

Narrator: It was employers.

The consultation document discusses reducing the regulatory. Based on the changes outlined in Bill 32 (affecting employment standards and labour relations), this most likely means loosening the rules, which will shift costs from employers to workers in the form of less safe workplaces and more injuries and deaths.

The survey touches on several topics and foreshadows changes. These include:
  • Joint health and safety committees: These were introduced in Alberta in 2018. The questions hint at loosening the rules (which will make it easier for employers to subvert and ignore them) and eliminating the requirement for them in so-called low-risk workplaces.
  • Right to refuse: There is discussion of limiting the right to refuse unsafe work if the refusal might endanger others (so good-bye right to refuse in healthcare). There is also discussion about reducing delays associated with addressing refusals. At a guess, I’d say we’re going to see refusals no longer continuing until an OHS officer investigates (if an employer fails to make the work safe).
  • Enforcement: There is discussion of “increasing flexibility” in how to deal with noncompliance with the law. Since enforcement of OHS remains completely ineffective due to a lack of political will and resources, I’m not sure what case exists for increasing flexibility around noncompliance (which presumably would further reduce the incentive employers have to comply).
  • Less prescriptive: There are questions that suggest making the Act less prescriptive. This undermines the whole logic of having OHS laws. We have prescriptive laws because, absent such laws, employers operate unsafely in order to reduce labour costs (usually to increase profits). Why on earth would you make a law less prescriptive if the result will be more workers will get injured and die?
  • Advisory bodies: The consultation suggests the government would prefer to have fewer stipulated expert advisory bodies (e.g., the mining expert panel) and more flexibility to appoint panels and establish their scope of work. The absence of a clear problem that this problem would solve is concerning. This sounds like a way to further politicize advisory panels (i.e., stack them in favour of employer interests).
  • Potentially serious incidents (PSIs): The 2017 changes to the Act required reporting of potentially serious incidents (i.e., near misses). The consultation suggests the definition of a PSI is unclear (it isn’t) and employers don't like the work extra reporting entails. The reason for PSI reporting is that they identify unsafe workplaces and industries that require greater enforcement attention before injuries and fatalities happen.
Overall, my expectation is that this consultation is simply window dressing for a weakening of Alberta’s injury prevention laws. A 2016 study found that 1 in 5 Alberta workers is injured on the job each year and 1 in every 10.5 is seriously injured. There is also widespread employer non-compliance with even the most rudimentary OHS obligations. If the United conservative government was keen on improving safety, they would enhance enforcement rather than weakening the law.

This review is open until August 12.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Shaming OHS violators reduces violations and injuries

An interesting article out of the US suggests shaming employers for egregiously violating occupational health and safety laws increases compliance. More specifically, a single press release about a severe OHS violation has the same impact as performing an additional 210 inspections. The underlying dynamic appears to be employers move to comply to avoid action by employees.

Earlier research suggested that a press release results in 73% fewer violations among nearby peer firms. The compliance effect of this shaming is stronger than the effect of actually inspecting these workplaces! A part of this effect may be that the risk to a firm of fines (which are low value and rare) is relatively low, whereas the risk of financial consequences caused by bad publicity is relatively high. Shaming also appears to lead to fewer (reported) workplace injuries.

Firms may also respond to shaming because they wish to avoid their workers taking action upon learning about injury risks (e.g., quitting, demanding higher wages). This effect appears to occur when workers have more bargaining power (i.e., where unionization rates are higher). By contrast, where workers have little bargaining power, shaming has little or no effect. This makes sense: information is unlikely to affect worker behaviour if they have no real means of putting it to use.

This research suggests that shaming Alberta employers who are egregious OHS violators would hugely amplify the effect of existing inspections and, therefore, drive down the number of Albertans who are injured on the job each year. Alberta presently has a legislative framework that allows the government to shame employers who are egregious OHS violators. To date, no government (Conservative, New Democrat, or UCP) has pursued this approach.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: Superstore Season 5

This year, the comedy Superstore once again canvassed a bunch of labour-related issues. At the end of the fourth season, Cloud9 was being unionized and the corporate offices collaborated with ICE to raid the store for undocumented workers and, thereby putting a chill the organizing drive.

The fifth season opened with the introduction of a cleaning robot, which raised (ultimately unfounded) fears about job loss due to automation. The employer also introduces a game-based app that allows the corporation to track the location of its workers.

The use of ICE to intimidate the union drive forms the basis for getting an undocumented worker out of jail. The worker then gets re-hired but, when his new employer finds out about his status, the worker is blackmailed into doing a bunch of extra work. Some of the workers use a gig-economy app to subcontract out some of their work to a very vulnerable worker.

The store’s union drive is successful. Bargaining goes well, but only because the store has been secretly sold and the agreement becomes null and void. The key organizer then becomes involved with the Raise the Wage movement.

An employee with a mental health issue returns to the store and stalks another employer. She is suspended. Upon return, no one wants to work with her. She’s eventually injured by the cleaning machine and rushed to the hospital.

For a light-weight comedy, Superstore does a reasonable job of staying topical and addressing real world dynamics in workplaces.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: The English Game

Earlier this spring, I watched a mini-series on Netflix called The English Game. The story is set mainly in northern England in 1879 and (loosely) follows the first British working-class soccer team to win the FA Cup. Previously, the game was mostly the preserve of upper-class amateurs. Factory Owner James Walsh breaks the rules by hiring two Scottish ringers to play for his Darwen team and mayhem ensues.

The storyline is interesting because it foregrounds class differences, conflict and blindness. The organization that controls the FA Cup is very upper crust and is largely (and perhaps intentionally) blind to the advantages that the rules grant to those who are wealthy (mostly leisure time).

The factory owners (many of whom also run soccer teams on the side) are a mixed bag and continually grind the wages of the factory workers. This leads to a strike and violence (which is quickly repressed by the police and judiciary). The social services available for “fallen” women was also starkly depicted.

Soccer is presented as one of the few positive things in the lives of factory workers. The notion of soccer as bridging the class divide (without in any way upsetting it) was a bit heavy handed and galling. This gets papered over a bit with a story of the moral redemption of (eventual soccer big wheel) Arthur Kinnaird.

While period dramas are not my thing, this was an interesting (and short!) foray into the lives of upper- and lower-class people during the industrial revolution.

-- Bob Barnetson