A voluntary safety accreditation program that entitles employers to earn WCB premium rebates and bid on lucrative government contracts is being abused, admits Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.
Lukaszuk announced Thursday that companies holding Certificates of Recognition (COR) that entitled them to $77 million in WCB rebates last year alone are going to have to start explaining why they still have accidents and fatalities.
"For the most part, Alberta's 9,000 COR holders have a record to be proud of. They have developed effective health and safety programs that practice what they preach and they are proud of their performance record," Lukaszuk said. "However, I believe there are some companies that are more interested in the Workers' Compensation Board premium rebates than their ability to keep the workplace as safe as it should be. Beginning July 1, this will come to an end."
Responding to concerns raised by the provincial auditor general last year, Lukaszuk said companies enrolled in the program will have their safety accreditation reviewed if they have on-site fatalities, serious injuries or multiple stop-work orders.
If they are found to not have adequate safety programs in place, they could have their certification revoked, he explained.
"Make no mistake, COR is a big deal to industry," Lukaszuk told reporters as children played safely in a mock Alberta Safety Council village in east Edmonton.
A Calgary Herald investigation last year revealed companies that have serious and fatal accidents still received rebates under the program.
Safety accredited employers are entitled to WCB rebates of about three per cent annually, which Lukaszuk says translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars for some of the largest employers.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan called the program "an unmitigated failure."
"The government has been handing out these certificates like candy and very little effort was made to determine whether employers actually deserved them," he said.
While he said the changes are a start, McGowan expressed concern the reviews and audits of COR companies will not be public.
"If employers lose their certificate, we think that should be publicized because workers deserve to know," McGowan said.
NDP MLA Rachel Notley said she doesn't think the measures will make a difference in decreasing Alberta's workplace fatalities, which are among the highest in Canada.
"The way you make work sites safer is by providing a meaningful role for employees to get involved in the development of health and safety plans on a day-to-day basis," she said. "We're one of the few provinces in the country that doesn't have mandatory joint work site health and safety committees."
Alberta Liberal MLA Harry Chase said the new measures announced Thursday can only work if the government ensures employers don't pressure employees not to report workplace injuries.
"Financial incentives come with a risk," he said. "Unscrupulous employers may be tempted to under-report workplace injuries to avoid losing COR certification."
Alberta injury expert Dr. Louis Francescutti, president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, says he believes that's already happening.
He said it makes no sense that the number of hours lost due to injuries in Alberta are supposedly decreasing as fatalities are steadily climbing.
"The numbers you can't cheat on are the fatalities," he said. "You can't hide a dead body."
One hundred and thirty-six Albertans died on the job last year; 110 the year before that.
Lukaszuk says he is also considering regulations that will allow workplace inspectors to fine employers and employees on the spot for safety violations rather than launch cumbersome legal proceedings.
Calgary Herald, Fri Jun 6 2011
Byline: Darcy Henton