The state of the province’s economy can be measured in more than dollars — booming business is also mirrored in the death toll suffered by workers.
Government figures show workplace fatalities in 2010 spiked by 24 per cent over the previous year. The figures, compiled by Alberta Employment and Immigration, record 136 deaths. In 2009, that number was 110.
Over the previous decade, workplace deaths have spiked in tandem with boom times, reaching a record 166 deaths in 2008.
As the economy shows signs of recovery, union leaders are worried more workers may feel the brunt of haphazard safety practices and lax enforcement.
“We’ve been warning the provincial government for the last couple of years that a crisis in health and safety was looming, simply because we were going to be emerging from the recession,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
“During the recession, it’s not surprising the number of fatalities and injuries went down simply because there were fewer people working in dangerous occupations, especially in the energy sector and in construction.”
The government has announced 30 new health and safety inspectors over three years to help prevent unsafe practices.
Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk noted that the recorded fatalities also include workers killed in car accidents and by long-term exposure to hazardous materials.
“Workers were exposed to (substances like asbestos) then and become a statistic now, rather than in the past,” he said.
“When you look at actual fatalities on the job site, the number doesn’t fluctuate that much.”
That said, Lukaszuk acknowledges more needs to be done to instil safety on the work site.
With a booming economy comes proportionally more workers and, therefore, more accidents. Alberta’s economy also tends to attract more workers from other parts of Canada and the world, some of whom may be less experienced.
“Those are all academic arguments about why numbers grow when the economy expands, but those are not excuses,” Lukaszuk said. “Until we reach the point where it is socially unacceptable in Alberta to create places of employment that are unsafe, or work in a manner that is unsafe, my job isn’t done.”
Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald, a longtime safety critic, praised the Tories for addressing the issue, but said more could still be done.
“Yes, you gotta give them credit for some of the initiatives they attempted, but it’s not enough. Whenever you look at a 24 per cent increase, the workforce hasn’t expanded 24 per cent, economic activity hasn’t expanded 24 per cent. That’s just not an excuse.”
MacDonald said he’d like to see the results of workplace inspections posted online, akin to what’s currently done for restaurants.
He said accident reports should also be made admissible at trial, which “would help lead to more prosecutions.”
Only a small percentage of workplace accidents and deaths are ever followed by criminal charges in Alberta.
McGowan also said the inspectors recently hired by the government are only replacing the dozens cut during the Klein era.
“We’re still playing catch-up and we’re seeing the result of that in terms of a 24 per cent increase in workplace fatalities,” he said.
The labour federation highlighted the numbers on a day of mourning on Thursday.
About 300 union members marched to a memorial near City Hall to lay wreaths and observe a moment of silence for colleagues killed on the job.
Among them was Spencer Beach.
Eight years ago, Beach was replacing a linoleum floor in a new Edmonton home with a chemical to loosen the glue.
The furnace clicked, sparking a flash fire that burned at 1,500 C, leaving him with third-and fourth-degree burns over 90 per cent of his body.
Doctors gave the man a five per cent chance of survival.
“I didn’t know anything about safety,” said Beach, his nose and ears partially reconstructed with skin that looked thin, pale and stretched.
After years of surgery, rehabilitation and pain, Beach now works as a public speaker on safety.
It’s a perfect job: “Hopefully I can prevent this from happening to any other families.”
He has since published a book about his plight, titled In Case of Fire.
“I’m through (my experiences) to the point where I’m not a burn survivor, I’m an extremely hot man,” said Beach.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Apr 28 2011
Byline: Jen Gerson