Alberta government doing poor job of enforcing safety regulations: auditor general

The Alberta government is doing a poor job of enforcing safety regulations on employers who ignore the rules and force their workers to face a significantly higher risk of injury.

The acting auditor general of Alberta, Merwan Saher, recently released a report that aims to improve the province's planning and reporting systems for occupational health and safety (OHS).

The report has revealed there are serious weaknesses in the Department of Employment and Immigration's systems to deal with persistent non-compliance.

"The department does not have a clear decision ladder for escalating compliance action from promotion and education to enforcement," said Saher in the report.

"A small, but high-risk group of employers, consistently fails to comply with OHS orders, often despite numerous reinspections by the department."

The auditor general identified 63 companies in a five month period in 2007-2008 that repeatedly failed to comply with health and safety laws for one year or more.

This group of employers had a Disabling Injury Rate (DIR) that is three to four times greater than the provincial average.

The DIR measures the number of injuries per 100 person-years, where the injured worker couldn't perform regular tasks and was assigned to modified duty, such as a desk job, until they could recover.

The Alberta DIR has decreased from 4.14 in 2006 to 3.63 in 2008.
"Without adequate systems to enforce compliance with OHS legislation for those employers and workers who persistently fail to comply, health and safety of workers continue to be exposed to otherwise avoidable risks," said Saher.

"Employers, who choose not to comply with OHS orders, may gain an unfair advantage over employers, who spend the time and resources to deal with and avoid contraventions."

According to Saher, half of those employers that persistently fail to comply with the OHS Act also continue to hold a valid Certificate of Recognition (COR), and continue to have elevated injury rates among their workers.
These employers don't comply with OHS orders, and their workers are much more likely to get injured on the job.

However, these employers continue to receive Partners in Injury Reduction financial rebates and use their COR to bid on contracts with major companies in such industries as construction, and oil and gas.
These unnamed high-risk companies operate in more than 30 industries and employ about 31,000 full-time workers.

"The problem is that this government just can't bring itself to crack down on employers - even if those employers have repeatedly violated the law," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

"You know your system is badly broken when companies are not only allowed to break the law, but they're actually handed rewards that are supposed to be reserved for companies that play by the rules."

One of the main recommendations of the report is that the Department of Employment and Immigration strengthen its proactive inspection program by improving risk focus and co-ordinating employer selection methods for its inspection initiatives.

The report also recommends that the government improve its systems for issuing COR by obtaining assurance on work done by COR auditors and consistently following-up on recommendations made to certifying partners.

"Voluntary compliance can only take you so far. Sometimes, for the good of all Albertans, the government has to be willing to take out the big stick and punish employers who break the law," said McGowan. "This is a lesson the Conservative government needs to learn - and learn soon. Because, if they don't, more working Albertans are going to pay with their lives.

The Ministry of Employment and Immigration reported that there were 110 workplace incident fatalities in 2009.

The construction sector had the largest share of these deaths with 34, or 31 per cent of all fatalities. There were 166 workplace fatalities in the province in 2008, with 59 in the construction industry.

The drop in fatalities in 2009 can be attributed to the slowdown in economic activity that resulted from the recession.

Journal of Commerce, Wed May 19 2010
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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