EDMONTON - Alarm bells should be ringing in the provincial labour department now that it has been revealed that there may have been no guardrails on the roof where a 14-year-old boy was working before falling to his death last week.
According to a newspaper report published today, Edmonton police are investigating the possibility the fifth-floor barricade that 14-year-old Shane Stecyk supposed fell over was actually erected after the accident.
"It looks like we had a deadly combination of factors contributing to the death of this young boy," says Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "First, we had a roof that was wet and slippery. Second, we had a young worker with no experience; who had not been given any kind of protective harness; and who had not received any safety training. Third, it looks like there was no guardrail as required by law. It was a deadly accident waiting to happen."
Steel says the provincial government has to take a significant share of the blame for the accident because it doesn't do nearly enough to ensure that companies - especially in dangerous industries such as construction - comply with existing health and safety rules.
"It's not enough to have rules saying things like 'guardrails must be erected' or that "'oung workers need special permits'," says Steel. "These rules are meaningless unless they are enforced and violators are punished. That's just not happening in Alberta today. As a result, the lives of working Albertans - young and old - are being put at risk."
In a letter sent to Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford yesterday, Steel pointed out that provincial spending on occupational health and safety programs has plummeted from $10.61 per worker per year in 1993 to $4.61 per worker in 2000. As a result, the province now has only 58 health and safety inspectors - down from 69 in 1993 - to look after 1.6 million workers and nearly 70,000 work sites.
To make matters worse, Steel says companies are rarely prosecuted for breaking health and safety rules - and even when they are, the fines are too small to act as an effective deterrent. For example, only one company was prosecuted in 1999 - out of the nearly 1,000 companies that were cited for violations.
"It's like trying to mop up an ocean with a sponge," says Steel. "Because of their overwhelming case loads, the inspectors spend almost all of their time investigating fatalities, leaving them with no time to investigate less serious incidents or to do preventative spot checks of problem employers."
Steel says that the government and the public are fooling themselves if they think that Shane Stecyk's is an isolated case.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "How many other construction sites don't have proper safety railings? How many other young teens are working illegally on construction sites? Probably a lot - but we don't know because we don't do enough inspections. And despite all the attention this case has received, unscrupulous employers will probably continue to cut corners because they know that, here in Alberta, they can get away with it."
One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole situation, says Steel, is that the government knows which employers and which industries are most dangerous - they've compiled a list based on injury statistics from the WCB. Many of these employers have been targeted for preventative spot inspections under the so-called "Planned Inspection Program" - but the inspectors almost never get around to actually doing the inspections because of lack of resources.
"The bottom line is that we believe the death of this young worker - and many of the other workers who die on Alberta worksites each year - is directly related to the government's lax enforcement of health and safety rules," says Steel. "If nothing else, this case proves what we in the labour movement have been saying for years: namely that there is a desperate need for more frequent and more aggressive health and safety inspections in this province."
For more information call:
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021 (wk) / 499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, Director of Communications @ 483-3021 (wk)