Adding evening and weekend safety inspections is a step in the right direction to improve safety at residential construction sites, but what Alberta workers really need is the ability to join unions to organize in order to protect themselves, says the province's largest labour group.
"The evidence is clear from Alberta and across the country that the presence of unions at construction sites reduces the number of injuries and fatalities," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), which represents 145,000 workers.
"In Alberta, the highest rates of injuries and fatalities are at residential construction sites, where membership in unions is almost non-existent, because changes to the Labour Code in 1988 made it almost impossible for those workers to organize. The lack of safety in this sector is a direct result of those changes to the Labour Code. The province is reaping what it has sown - and the dead and injured workers and their families are paying the price," says McGowan.
"The recent inspection blitz paints a shocking picture of what it's like to work in that sector in Alberta, with nearly 400 orders issued after 600 inspections of 387 employers. We must remember that employers were warned about this inspection blitz in advance and given a chance to clean up their act. Can you imagine how many workplace health and safety violations would have been found if these had been surprise inspections?"
In Alberta, the injury and fatality rates are lower in commercial construction than in residential construction, corresponding to rates of unionization in those sectors. In parts of Canada where more residential construction workers belong to unions, such as Quebec, the rate of fatalities are lower than in the same sector in Alberta.
The Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada reports that Alberta had 46 deaths in the construction industry in 2007, the latest year of statistics available, whereas 27 construction workers died in Quebec the same year. Some 36 per cent of workers in Quebec are protected by union membership, whereas only 23 per cent of Alberta workers enjoy the same representation. For more information, see the AFL's backgrounder on unions and workplace safety.
"It's a simple formula: The higher the rate of unionization, the lower the rate of accidents. Unions, quite simply, are part of the solution," says McGowan.
"It is clear that employers are unwilling to take safety seriously and that inspections alone aren't enough to convince them. Workers need the protection of a union so they can refuse to do unsafe work, so they can demand safety equipment and insist on safety processes being followed without fear of being punished or fired by their employer," he says.
The AFL has released a 10-point plan to improve safety with recommendations including more inspectors with more powers, more prosecutions of problem employers, protection for workers who blow the whistle on unsafe practices, and mandatory joint health-and-safety committees for workers and employers. To view the AFL's 10-point plan to improve workplace safety, click here.
MEDIA CONTACT: Gil McGowan, AFL president 780-218-9888
McGowan is available to the media for in-person interviews in Calgary today