Employers in Alberta will soon be required to pay WCB premiums that more accurately reflect the real cost of workplace injuries - and that's a good thing, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"For years now, the WCB has been using investment income to keep premiums artificially low," says AFL president Les Steel. "As a result of this practice, the incentive for employers to maintain safe work sites has been undermined. Basically, businesses have been getting a free ride."
Steel was responding to the announcement earlier today that WCB premiums will be increased by 27.3 percent. The WCB said increases are needed to cover the cost of benefits for injured workers and keep the board in the black.
Steel says the financial crunch at the WCB was caused by the board's over-reliance on income from volatile market investments - a practice which the labour movement has criticized for years - coupled with a significant increase in workplace injury rates.
"The reality is that employers in this province are hurting more workers," says Steel. "As accident rates increase, we think premiums should also go up to reflect the real cost of claims. If employers want premiums to go down, then they should make their workplaces safer. It's as simple as that."
Despite predictable complaints from business, Steel says the premium increases are both necessary and desirable.
"For the first time in years, employers in this province are going to be responsible for covering the real cost of the injuries that occur on their worksites. We in the labour movement support this change and hope it convinces employers to take workplace health and safety more seriously."
Between 1994 and 1999, employer premiums dropped 53%, from $2.29 per $100 of insured earnings to $1.07. During the same period the only substantial change to worker benefits was to severely disabled workers. Most workers received no enhanced benefits.
Steel points out that even with the increase announced today, employer premiums are only 71% of 1994 rates. "Employers are still getting a bargain in this province," he says.
For more information call: Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 499-4135
- or -
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications @ (780) 483-3021
The Alberta Federation of Labour responded to the government's planned changes to WCB by stating that it had positive and negative impacts on workers. The AFL singled out the promise to establish a one-time tribunal to review longstanding contentious claims as a positive step for injured workers.
"The tribunal to review past claims is a victory for injured workers," says AFL President Les Steel. "Over the years many workers were unjustly denied WCB benefits because of flaws in the WCB system. This one-time review provides a change to correct those past wrongs."
Steel cites the case of the Medicine Hat Transit workers exposed to methanol as an example of a case clearly deserving of a second look. "We need someone with a fresh eye to look at these cases and determine if the worker was treated fairly."
Other changes, Steel says, are a mixture of good, bad and too early to tell. "The changes are a mixed bag for workers. There are some things that will help workers, but there are some proposals I am concerned about as well."
"The WCB has been out of control for the past few years, I am hopeful some of the changes will force the WCB to be more accountable to Albertans." Steel highlights the requirements for an Annual General Meeting and the new Accountability Framework as examples.
Other positive changes include:
- Eliminating the CSRC, the in-house appeal panel, which only served to delay the appeal process
- Moving the Appeals Commission and Appeals Advisors out from under WCB
- Legislating a 30 day requirement on WCB to implement appeal decisions
Steel says he is concerned about structural changes being made to the Appeals Commission. "Eliminating the employer and worker commissioners has the potential to unravel all the other good changes to the appeal system."
Steel is also opposed to making the Commissioners their own Board of Directors. "The people writing the decisions need to be accountable to some body above them. They can't police themselves."
Steel is disappointed the government did not move forward on recommendations to fund independent advocates for injured workers. "Workers should have a right to choose their advocate in an appeal."
"We have been saying for years that the WCB is ignoring injured workers. I think the Minister finally heard our message. And he seems to have gotten it partly right." Steel concluded. "And rest assured we will be talking with him about the rest of it."
For further information, contact:
Les Steel, President @ (780) 499-4135
Jason Foster, Director of Policy Analysis @ (780) 483-3021
Presented at the 3rd Biennial Convention, May 3 - 6, 2001
Albertans need to not forget the 14 year old boy killed at a construction site, or the Subway store employee beaten to death by a robber, says Alberta Federation of Labour President Audrey Cormack. Across Alberta on Friday and Saturday, workers will be respecting a minute of silence and participating in other events to remember workers killed at work. April 28 is the 6th International Day of Mourning to commemorate those killed at work.
"We must not forget the needless death of the 14 year old boy killed at an Edmonton construction site, or the Subway store employee brutally beaten to death, or the 116 other workplace deaths in Alberta last year," says Cormack. "If we do, we will learn nothing from these tragedies."
"We need to take time to remember workers who were killed and injured. But more importantly, we need to use the Day of Mourning to strengthen our resolve to end workplace death," says AFL President Audrey Cormack. "We need to fight to make workplaces safer and make sure every worker makes it home safely at night."
Cormack points out that new statistics released by the AFL this week show that accident rates have doubled in the last decade. She attributes the increase to lax enforcement of the regulations.
"In Alberta, we are going in the wrong direction," adds Cormack. "There were 118 workers killed in the year 2000, and each and every one of them was avoidable."
"The government, the WCB, employers and workers need to all work harder to make workplaces safer. There don't need to be any more deaths."
The AFL will be hosting a candle ceremony in Edmonton on Saturday at 11:00 am at City Hall. Events will also be held in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray and many other centres around Alberta. Flags will be at half-mast in many cities, and tens of thousands of workers will observe a minute of silence during the workday. Thousands of other workers will be marking Day of Mourning on Friday, as Saturday is not a work day at many workplaces.
"Day of Mourning is only one day, but I hope that in that one day, we find the resolve to fight for 365 days for safer workplaces," Cormack concluded.
For further information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ 780-499-6530 (cell)
As the 6th International Day of Mourning approaches, the Alberta Federation of Labour released new figures today showing that the rate of workplace accidents in Alberta has nearly doubled in the past decade.
"The tragic reality is that workplaces are more dangerous today than they were 10 years ago," says AFL Secretary-Treasurer Les Steel. "There are three times as many accidents today as a decade ago. Even factoring in the growth in the workforce, Alberta's accident rate is double what is was."
"April 28 is the International Day of Mourning," added Steel. "Last year 118 workers were killed at work. It is a reminder to all of us that we need to do more to make workplaces safer." It is the fourth straight year in which more than 100 workers were killed.
Steel stated that the Alberta government and WCB are not doing enough to combat unsafe workplaces. "We need stronger enforcement from the government and the WCB needs to pay more attention to injured workers and less to the financial bottom line."
Using figures from WCB, the AFL calculated that in 2000 there were just over 12 accidents for every 100 workers. This compares to 6.3 accidents in 1991. "Accident rates have creeped upward during the past decade, and the Alberta government and WCB have not acted to stem the rise."
"Employers can get away with almost anything in health and safety, because there aren't enough inspectors in the field and there is not enough political will to prosecute employers who break the law," says Steel.
The AFL used the total number of claims accepted by WCB and divided it by the number of workers covered to come up with the accident rate. Total claims include all officially reported accidents.
"The only accurate way to determine how safe workplaces are is to measure how often accidents are occurring."
The WCB presents misleading figures to the public, Steel charges. The WCB commonly refers to the lost-time claim rate, which is the rate of claims that resulted in a worker missing work for more than one day. The measure ignores more than 100,000 claims. Some are less serious injuries, not requiring the worker to miss workdays. Some are serious injuries, but the employer prevents time-loss by offering modified work or other programs to keep the employee at work.
"The trend toward modified work and other "make-work" programs distort the true health and safety picture," observes Steel. "Workers are still getting injured, but employers are just getting better at minimizing the loss in productivity." Steel indicates the growth in modified work programs is due in large part to the fact WCB sets premiums based on time-loss claims only, and not all claims, creating an incentive for employers to hide time-loss.
"WCB should be setting premiums based upon the number of accidents in the workplace, not the number of time-loss claims."
To mark Day of Mourning, the AFL will be holding a ceremony at City Hall on Saturday, April 28 at 11:00 am. The International Day of Mourning was started in Canada by the Canadian Labour Congress. It has now spread to more the 100 countries worldwide. Day of Mourning remembers those workers who were killed at work.
"Instead of more of the same old word games, we should use this year's Day of Mourning to make a new effort to make workplaces safer. Two deaths a week is too many. One death is too many," Steel concluded.
For further information contact:
Les Steel, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 780-483-3021 (wk)/499-4135 (cell)
Jason Foster, Director of Policy Analysis @ 780-483-3021
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) today responded to the release of two WCB Review Committee Reports by stating that injured workers have been vindicated by the findings. Both reports were highly critical of WCB, calling it unaccountable. Both reports recommend sweeping changes to WCB policies and procedures. The AFL urged the Minister of Human Resources and Employment, Clint Dunford, to act swiftly on the reports.
"I feel injured workers around the province have been vindicated today," says AFL President Audrey Cormack. "We have said for years that the WCB is unaccountable, unresponsive and uninterested in helping injured workers. The two review committees agree with us."
"However, I am concerned these reports, like so many before them, will simply gather dust on the Minister's desk," adds Cormack. "I intend to pressure Minister Dunford to act swiftly to implement the recommendations found in the reports."
The MLA review committee found that the core problem at WCB is a lack of accountability. "I agree that accountability is the issue most needing correction at the WCB. It can't happen too soon for me."
Cormack also highlights that the MLA Committee suggests that conflict of interest is a serious potential problem at the WCB. Cormack urges further exploration of this matter.
Cormack says that she is in agreement with most of the recommendations found in the MLA Review Committee. In particular, she is pleased to see recommendations addressing:
- Recommendations curtailing the power of medical advisors and give more authority to the treating physician and an independent panel of doctors.
- Establishment of a Tribunal to review past cases where the worker did not receive just compensation.
- Implementation of an Alternative Disputes Resolution mechanism.
The AFL's opinion of the Appeals Systems Review committee is more mixed. "I am very, very pleased they are recommending the WCB pay for external advocates hired by injured workers. This will make the system much more fair."
Cormack is concerned with recommendations urging the Appeals Commission fall under the Department of Justice, and that a more "legalistic" framework be established for appeals. "In our submission to the Committee, we stated that we did not think a more legalistic approach would help injured workers."
"Today the WCB got its long deserved conviction for failing in its mandate. Hopefully tomorrow we can get the needed changes implemented so we can finally have a fair and just WCB in this province," Cormack concludes.
For further information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President (cell) 780-499-6530
Jason Foster, Director (cell) 780-910-1137
EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour released documents today accessed through the Freedom of Information Act which show that Bovar employees have elevated PCB levels in their blood and that health and safety incidents such as spills and leaks of contaminated waste is frequent on the Swan Hills site.
"If the government intends to take over Swan Hills, they had better know that they have a huge health and safety problem at that site," says AFL President Audrey Cormack. "Documents we received through FOIP show that PCB blood levels in Bovar workers have grown steadily since 1993. The documents also show that Bovar's health and safety record is questionable."
"When the government takes over, their first priority better be cleaning up the site and doing a better job of protecting the workers."
Cormack pointed out that Bovar records show that in 1993 blood levels of PCBs averaged 1.8 PPB in Swan Hills workers. By 1997, this number reached 8.25 PPB. In 1999 the level was 7.28 (chart attached). A Bovar memo relates the small drop to "the increase of new employees who may not have been exposed to PCB's previously." (memo dated July 17, 1998).
The documents also show that in 1998 that 4% of Bovar's workforce had PCB blood levels over 30 ppb, which is the level at which immediate action is required to limit PCB exposure. While the scientific measurements of PCB blood levels are very complicated, most experts consider the levels seen at the Swan Hill plant to be above normal and at a level that should be addresssed.
"The documents also show that the Swan Hills plant has a track record of consistent spills and leaks of contaminated waste," adds Cormack. Health and Safety reports show that spills or leaks causing exposure to hazards happen monthly at the Swan Hills site.
"My primary concern is the welfare of those workers," says Cormack. "Bovar has clearly not done a good enough job protecting them from PCBs and other hazards. If the government is going to step in, they had better do a better job than Bovar did."
Cormack urged the government to bring in scientific experts independent of the Swan Hills Plant to study the problem and offer actions that can be taken to protect the workers. She also wonders why the government never cracked down on Bovar during all these years of health and safety problems.
"If they can't assure the safety of the workers at the plant, it should be shut down until they can, and the workers compensated for the loss of employment and for the exposure to PCBs." Cormack concluded.
For more information call:
Audrey M. Cormack, President at 499-6530 (cell) or428-9367 (hm)
Jason Foster at 910-1137 (cell) or 471-5525 (office)
Labour members of the Task Force that recommended new provisions for working alone regulations released a "minority report" today stating the provisions "fall short" in protecting workers. The "Minority Report" comes in response to the official implementation of new working alone regulations.
"The Alberta government missed an opportunity today," says Audrey Cormack, AFL President. "The new regulations fall far short of what is needed to really protect workers who have to work alone."
The Minority Report comes from a group of 6 Labour representatives on the General Safety Regulation Task Force, which is the body charged with recommending new regulations for working alone. The Task Force recommendations included a mandatory assessment of the hazards and some form of effective communication system.
"The labour representatives attempted to include stronger provisions, such as permitting a worker to refuse working alone that may put their safety at substantial risk, but were shot down by the employer side of the Task Force," says Jason Foster, who represented the AFL on the Task Force.
"Banning working alone was never in the Minister's plan," says Foster. Foster indicates the Minister communicated to a number of parties that a ban was never in the works. This message affected the Task Force's deliberations.
The labour representatives decided to support the six sections as a first step measure. "It was the best compromise possible given the strong opposition from employers and the government," says Foster. "We want the public to know that the provisions do not go far enough."
The Minority Report calls for additional steps to be taken, including:
- Making the elimination of working alone (scheduling more than one worker) the first consideration before other hazard controls
- The Minister be given the discretion to designate certain jobs "high hazard" and ban working alone in those jobs
- Permitting workers to refuse to work alone if it places their safety at "substantial risk"
- Define "effective communication system" as having both an emergency call for the employee and a regular check-in by someone who can get help
"Preventing working alone should be the first level of defence," says Cormack. "With this government, it barely makes the radar screen."
The labour representatives will continue to sit on the Task Force and try to make improvements to the health and safety regulations where they can.
"What the results of the working alone process show is that the public needs to put greater pressure on the government to make them give higher priority to worker health and safety."
For more information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ 780 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (home)
Jason Foster, AFL @ 780-1137 (wk)
Note: Copies of the Minority Report are available from the AFL at 483-3021.
The Alberta Federation of Labour is asking why Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford is holding back approval of the new working alone regulation and handbook, when it has been complete for over a month. The working alone regulation was promised after the murder of Tara MacDonald in a Calgary Subway store earlier this year.
"Four months ago, the Minister was promising fast action to the serious problem of working alone," says AFL Secretary-Treasurer Les Steel. "Today he seems content to let it languish in bureaucratic limbo. We know the minister has been getting a lot of bad publicity lately because of his reaction to the death of a 14-year-old construction worker a couple weeks ago. But that's no reason to stop dealing with other important work safety issues. And it's no reason to go back on a promise."
In April the Minister appointed a committee to prepare a handbook on the hazards of working alone. He also instructed a second committee too fast-track the drafting of new regulations governing working alone. Both committees were to have completed their work by June. In a press release dated April 3, the Minister promised the handbook, which builds on the regulation, would "be made available to workplace stakeholders by June 30, 2000."
"The regulation is now almost a month overdue," says Steel. "Mr. Dunford has a responsibility to workers who have to work alone to get the regulation implemented." Currently in Alberta, there are no regulations governing the practice of working alone.
Steel predicts the release of the regulation will spark more controversy for Dunford. As reported by various media outlets, the proposed regulation will not place a ban on working alone. Steel suggests many Albertans will see the regulation as not doing enough to protect workers.
"July has been a hot month for Dunford," says Steel. "But he is compounding his problems by holding back protection for workers who work alone. He needs to lay aside his media concerns and put the interests of workers up front." Steel called on Dunford to release the regulation immediately, so that workers know what their protections are.
For more information call:
Les Steel, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021(work) or 499-4135 (cell)
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)