Unions claim provincial statistics underestimate number of employee fatalities

Labour unions in B.C. and Alberta commemorated the 13th International Day of Mourning amid claims that provincial government statistics underestimate the numbers of employees killed.

The Alberta Ministry of Employment and Immigration reported on April 17 that there were 154 occupational fatalities in 2007.

These fatalities are broken down into three categories; 44 were motor vehicle incidents, 47 were workplace incidents, and 63 were occupational disease deaths. However, the Alberta Federation of Labour estimates the real figure to be 166.

Barrie Harrison, a communications officer with the Alberta Ministry of Employment, said that the construction sector accounted for six deaths from motor vehicle accidents, 20 deaths from workplace incidents and 24 deaths from occupational disease.

"2007 had the most work-related fatalities since 1982 and was the sixth highest in the province's history and the first two months of 2008 were even worse," said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

He pointed out 28 workers were killed in the first two months of 2008, up from a year earlier.

While McGowan acknowledged it is early in the year, he expressed some concerns.

"If we continue to lose workers at this rate, we will kill 170 workers in 2008, which will be the highest number since the Hillcrest Mine disaster in 1914," he said.

A similar picture emerges in B.C.

According to WorkSafe BC fatality statistics, 228 workers died as a result of workplace incidents in 2007.

These fatalities are broken down into four categories; 37 were motor vehicle incidents, 57 were other injuries, 69 were asbestos exposure and 65 were other diseases.

WorkSafe BC also reported that first payment was made for 139 occupational deaths in 2007.

The 139 fatal injury claims first paid in 2007 is a different measure of fatalities for two reasons.

First, some of the fatalities first paid in 2007 occurred in a prior year. Second, some of the reported fatalities were not compensable.

Out of the 139 fatal injuries, construction had more workers killed in the workplace than any other industry with 30 deaths.

The B.C. Federation of Labour estimated that the true death toll in B.C. for 2007 was about 380.

"This is an epidemic, but we know these numbers fail to reflect the true number of workers and families profoundly affected by these diseases," said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

"Too often these diseases go undiagnosed and unreported. As a result, injured workers aren't compensated and employers are not held responsible."

The British Columbia and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council (BCYBCTC) made a prediction earlier this year that about 300 construction workers will die each year for the next five years of mesothelioma and other asbestos exposure illnesses.

The prediction is based on research by Professor Paul Demers at the University of British Columbia's school of environmental health as well as statistics from WorkSafe BC.

McGowan argued that fatality rates in Alberta tend to follow the cycles of economic growth and decline.

"Employers are cutting corners on training and safety procedures to meet the huge demand. The result is more accidents," he said.

"Many workers choose to walk away from unsafe jobs rather than pressure for more safety, meaning bad employers don't improve. And, the government is not doing enough inspections and enforcement."

More than 175,000 accidents were reported to the Alberta Workers Compensation Board in 2007. This works out to 20 accidents every hour - 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Both the AFL and the federation of labour are calling on employers, government and workers to do more to make workplaces safer.

Journal of Commerce, Mon May 5 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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