Whitewashing Alberta's workplace safety record

On April 28, workers around the world participated in the International Day of Mourning -- a day set aside to remember the multitude of people killed or injured at work each year.

Here in Alberta, unions and other groups organized a number of solemn events aimed at drawing public attention to the fact that workplace fatality rates in Alberta are consistently and significantly higher than the national average.

But this year, it wasn't stories of our province's dismal experience with workplace safety that made headlines.

Instead, it was Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk -- aided no doubt by spin doctors from the government's notorious Public Affairs Bureau -- who grabbed the spotlight by pointing to statistics showing that the number of workplace deaths in the province had dropped to 110 in 2009 from an all-time high of 166 in 2008.

"We've made good progress reducing workplace injuries," said Lukaszuk at a news conference, suggesting it was actions taken by his government that led to the dramatic year-over-year drop in workplace fatalities.

The problem with Lukaszuk's characterization of the situation is that it whitewashes the Alberta government's real track record on workplace health and safety. It also provides a convenient excuse for the minister to do nothing in response to a recent and scathing report from the auditor general which identified "serious weaknesses" in the Alberta government's system for enforcing its own workplace safety rules.

The question that should have been asked -- but apparently wasn't -- when the minister referred to the lower fatality rates in 2009 is: Why? Did the fatality numbers really drop because the government was doing a better job of promoting workplace health and safety?

The truth is that neither Lukaszuk nor his ministry can take credit for the drop in workplace fatalities. The real reason fewer people died on the job in 2009 is that fewer people were working.

As a result of the recession, there were many fewer people working in Alberta's most dangerous industries: 35,000 fewer in manufacturing; 30,000 fewer in oil and gas; 20,000 fewer in construction.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that a smaller workforce will likely lead to a smaller number of fatalities and injuries -- even in the absence of any measures by employers and government to improve safety.

A more instructive picture of how the Alberta government is really performing on workplace health and safety is painted in a new study from the Alberta Federation of Labour entitled, Danger: Workers At Risk.

The report shows that the Alberta government employs fewer workplace safety inspectors than most other provinces and spends less per worker on workplace safety today than it did 20 years ago -- even though a much larger proportion of the provincial workforce is now employed in one of the four most dangerous industries (oil and gas; construction; manufacturing; and transportation).

Instead of patting himself and his government on the back for a job supposedly well done, Lukaszuk should have used his news conference to explain why Alberta spends less per worker on workplace safety than other provinces -- even though our provincial economy is more dramatically skewed toward dangerous industries than other jurisdictions.

He should also have explained why his government still has not responded to a year-old fatality inquiry into the workplace death of farm worker Kevan Chandler which strongly recommended that agricultural workers be granted the same protections under the Occupational Health and Safety Code as other workers.

And he should have explained why his government hasn't yet committed to implementing the recommendations of the auditor general's report which came to the shocking conclusion that the Alberta government "does not have a clear decision-making ladder for escalating compliance action from promotion and education to enforcement."

In other words, the Alberta government has not been punishing Alberta employers for putting their workers at risk, even when those employers have been found repeatedly to be in violation of the Occupational Health and Safety Code.

In the end, Lukaszuk's "don't worry, be happy" approach to workplace safety may be enough to grab the media spotlight for a few days. But it won't be enough to stop a return to unacceptably high workplace injury and fatality rates once the provincial economy starts to pick up steam again.

In fact, the number of workplace fatalities recorded in the first three months of 2010 (36 deaths) is already up dramatically compared with the first three months of 2009.

If this pace is maintained, what exactly will Lukaszuk say at next year's Day of Mourning ceremonies?

Will he find new ways to massage the numbers to justify the status quo? Or will he finally admit that his government is not doing enough to make sure all working Albertans make it home safely at the end of their shifts?

Calgary Herald, Tues May 18 2010
Byline: Gil McGowan

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