EDMONTON - The Alberta government is not doing nearly enough to promote and enforce adequate health and safety standards on work sites across the province, says the Secretary Treasurer of Alberta's largest labour organization.
In a letter to provincial Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford, AFL Secretary Treasurer Les Steel criticized the government's track record on health and safety. He also accused Dunford of callously shrugging off the case of 14-year-old Shane Stecyk, who died last week while working at an Edmonton construction site.
Steel says accidents like the one leading to Stecyk's death can never be entirely eliminated. But he says they would happen much less frequently if the government put a higher priority on promoting and enforcing basic health and safety standards.
"I think most Albertans would be appalled if they knew how little money this government spends on things like workplace health and safety inspections," says Steel. "They would also be appalled if they knew how soft the government is on employers who break the rules and put their workers at risk."
In his letter to the Minister, Steel points out that the Alberta government now spends only $4.61 per worker each year on occupational health and safety programs - down from $10.61 per worker in 1993. As a result, there are fewer inspectors, doing fewer work site inspections - even though the Alberta workforce has been growing dramatically.
"Here in Alberta, we now have about 1.6 million people working in nearly 70,000 work sites across the province," says Steel. "Yet we only have 58 inspectors - down from 69 in 1993. It's like trying to mop up an ocean with a sponge and a pail."
To make matters worse, Steel says that companies are rarely prosecuted for contravening health and safety rules - and even when they are, the fines are too small to act as an effective deterrent.
To illustrate this point, Steel referred to the government's own figures showing that only 6 companies have been fined for health and safety violations since 1996 - and the fines have averaged just $19,750 (all for incidents involving fatalities). This compares to the situation in Ontario, where General Motors was recently fined $325,000 in relation to a worker fatality at one of its auto plants.
"All of this leaves me deeply troubled," says Steel. "We have a Minister who shrugs off the death of a 14-year-old worker, by saying "accidents happen." And we have a government that seems content to let employers regulate themselves. In this environment, it's no surprise that workplace fatalities are on the rise. It's the tragic and predictable result of under-funding and a lack of political will."
If the Alberta government really wants to bring down the soaring rates of worker injuries and fatalities, Steel says it needs to take the following steps: 1) increase funding for inspections 2) adopt a much more aggressive approach to enforcement 3) levy much stiffer fines 4) place tighter restrictions on the work that children under 16 can do; and 5) require mandatory health and safety training for new workers (especially in hazardous industries such as construction.)
"In relation to the Shane Stecyk's death, the last two points are most important," says Steel. "As adults, we have a responsibility to protect children from harm - and that means keeping kids under 16 away from dangerous places like construction sites. And for workers between 16 and 24, we need legislation ensuring that they get safety training before they start a new job. If we take these steps then we might be able to avoid mourning the loss of another teenager at the beginning of next year's construction season."
For more information call:
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021(wk)/499-4135(cell)
Attachment to follow
Alberta Health and Safety Facts
I. Work-Related Deaths (Alberta)
Source: Alberta Workers' Compensation Board
II. Alberta Government OH&S Investigations and Prosecutions
|Investigations||Comply Orders||Convictions(involving fatalities)||Convictions(no fatality)||Average Fine|
Source: Alberta Human Resources and Employment
(Note: There has not been a successful prosecution involving a non-fatal workplace injury since 1994. The average penalty for non-fatality cases in that year was $3,800.)
III. OH&S Budget ($000s)
(Note: The amount the Alberta government spends on occupational health and safety programs has plummeted from $10.61 per worker per year in 1991/92 to $4.36 per worker per year in 2000/01 - all figures adjusted for inflation and presented in 2000 dollars.)