Labour boss slams safety postings: Online project touted to make employers more compliant with orders

EDMONTON - A union boss says the province's plan to publicly post safety records for all Alberta companies starting this September may fall well short of telling people whether or not they are at risk while on the job.

"What will be missing will be any sense of what (a worksite's) violations were," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"Honestly, I don't know if the information on this website will be valuable at all in terms of providing an incentive for employers to clean up their acts in terms of health and safety."

On Friday, Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk unveiled a multi-tiered plan to clean up the province's Occupational Health and Safety program.

The move comes three months after a lengthy investigation by the auditor general's office indicating some Alberta companies repeatedly fail to comply with safety orders, and face no real repercussions from the province for falling short of safety laws.

Lukaszuk said Friday the compliance orders written about in the auditor general's spring report have since been reviewed, but he said he has no intention of naming the companies that had open orders.

"The companies that are not compliant, from now on, those orders remain open ... to make sure that compliance takes place," Lukaszuk said.

"We will ensure that they remain compliant or they will not be in business in this province."

Lukaszuk plans to set up a website this fall that will reflect the safety records of Alberta companies.

The minister said he won't release details about what will go online until next month, but the public postings are expected to focus on annual statistics for lost time rather than a breakdown of what caused workers to be hurt on their jobs.

"We're going to focus around the lost time claims," department spokesman Chris Chodan said. "It's fairly straightforward statistics ... It's a recognized standard."

By themselves, McGowan said, those numbers mean nothing. To push employers to change their ways, he said, the province should post compliance orders, court orders, and other safety documentation.

Alberta has the second-highest rate of worker fatalities in the country; in 2008, the province saw 166 people killed on the job, or nine of every 100,000 workers. In 2009, 110 people were killed while at work.

A spokesman for the construction industry said employers are pleased with the province's plans to post safety records because the website will be limited to statistics for shifts lost as a result of workplace injuries.

"It's something that they can live with," said Robin Kotyk, chief operating officer of the Alberta Construction Safety Association.

"If they show everybody out there, they're not being pinholed as being bad or being good."

In 2002, the province pledged to highlight Alberta's best and worst employers. But on Friday, Lukaszuk said he has no plans to make such information public.

"Releasing just a snippet of the best and a snippet of the worst, no matter where I draw the line, the public would ask who's just beyond the line?" Lukaszuk said.

"Why not release to Albertans all the companies with all the records, and contextualize it (by showing) what industry they're part of, how many employees they have, and give you the ability to decide who are the best and the worst."

Edmonton-Gold Bar Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald cautiously applauded Lukaszuk's plans, but noted similar promises have been made in the past.

MacDonald also criticized the province's failure to break down best and worst company safety records.

"I can't understand why we can't make the lists public of all employers with a bad safety record and all employers with a good safety record. Because the good employers are penalized here, whenever we fail to do that," MacDonald said.

The website is just one element of Lukaszuk's plan to make the Occupational Health and Safety program more transparent.

The minister is also putting a freeze on the province's Best Safety Performer Awards. In the past, some companies have been convicted of breaking workplace laws and still managed to win insurance rebates that exceeded the fines.

Lukaszuk said the program will be reviewed and will not be restarted until he is certain only "deserving companies" receive discounts.

Eight new Occupational Health and Safety officers will be hired, while the department updates its enforcement procedures. A pilot program to inspect workplaces on evenings and weekends is also being launched.

A recent Calgary Herald investigation showed Alberta is the province least likely to penalize employers despite having more prosecutors dedicated to workplace accidents than most other jurisdictions.

The Herald's findings were part of a series of stories about Alberta's poor workplace safety record that were published last month; MacDonald said Friday he had no doubt the scrutiny directly pushed Lukaszuk to make changes.

The minister, however, said he had heard not just from the auditor general's office and journalists since becoming minister in January, but also opposition members, employers and workers. "We're all in this together," he said.

Edmonton Journal, Sat July 31 2010
Byline: Trish Audette

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