Workplace deaths up 24%: 154 Alta. workers died on job last year, 30 more than in 2006

EDMONTON - Alberta workplace deaths jumped 24 per cent in 2007, but injuries fell slightly during the same period, new provincial statistics show.

A total of 154 people died on the job or as a result of their work last year, which is up from 124 in 2006, which was a 15-year low. The government says the number of deaths last year is consistent with the rates from the past 10 years.

For Rich Smith, who lost his son Sean in December to a workplace accident, the jump in the fatality rate is "disturbing.

"Our son is not a statistic. It's an accident, whether it's one of 154 or one in 10 makes no difference. The impact on us is the same."

Sean Smith, 28, was killed when a drill crew was moving their rig near Waterton Lakes National Park on Dec. 28. A clamshell lid collapsed, hitting him on the head. An investigation into the incident by Workplace Health and Safety is ongoing.

Rich Smith said he believes Alberta is, overall, a safe place to work, but that the current pace of life and work is probably affecting safety.

Many 2007 workplace incidents included employees being crushed to death by equipment, killed by long falls or electrocuted on job sites.

One death involved a 54-year-old restaurant worker who tripped over a case. The worker broke a leg and later died in hospital due to complications caused by a post-operative infection.

Of the 154 deaths last year, 44 were motor vehicle accidents, 47 were workplace accidents and 63 were from occupational diseases.

The disabling injury rate decreased to 3.88 per 100 person hours in 2007, from 4.14 the previous year.

Employment Minister Hector Goudreau said part of the reason for the increase in deaths was the higher number of workers in the province.

But Goudreau had no explanation as to why the injury and death numbers were headed in opposite directions.

"We really don't know. We'll be looking at those numbers a lot closer to try to see where those numbers are coming from."

Alberta Federation Labour President Gil McGowan said the "government is try to reassure us that we're moving in the right direction with workplace health and safety, when nothing could be further from the truth. It demonstrates that they're not taking this problem seriously."

McGowan said employers are running their operations past their capacity and cutting corners on workplace safety.

The government, he said, may have the right rules in place, but doesn't enforce them properly.

In 2006, McGowan said B.C. launched 74 prosecutions for workplace health and safety violations. In the same period, Alberta launched 12.

Goudreau said a decision still hasn't been made on whether to prosecute Canadian Natural Resources Limited for the deaths of two Chinese workers last year at their Horizon project 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Alberta Liberal critic Hugh MacDonald said the 24-per-cent increase in deaths should raise alarm bells with the government.

"Any time you have three workers per week lose their life, we've got to work harder."

Both he and McGowan suggested the government needs increase the number of random jobsite inspections and the amount of workplace education.

Alberta's fatality numbers do compare closely with other provinces. In 2005, Alberta had eight deaths per 100,000 workers, while B.C. had 8.9 and Ontario had 6.5.

The government data do not include all workplace injuries and deaths, such as agricultural accidents that don't fall under the Workers' Compensation Board jurisdiction.

Edmonton Journal, Fri Apr 18 2008
Byline: Archie McLean

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