Alberta boom brings more workplace death

Fatal accidents on Alberta job sites increased substantially last year, nudging closer to the alarmingly high occupational death rates recorded during the province's previous boom of the early 1980s.

Safety statistics released by the province yesterday revealed the 2007 overall injury rate as the lowest in Alberta's history. That accomplishment was muted, however, by 154 on-the-job deaths -- up from 124 in 2006.

In the early '80s, when Alberta was in the throes of a similarly super-heated boom, 169 workers died on the job in both 1980 and 1982.

Employers cutting corners on safety is a common theme in both eras, said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

"Workplace injuries and fatalities have spiked because of the overheated pace of economic development," he said.

"We're seeing young people thrown on construction sites and not being provided with the necessary safety training."

But drawing parallels between the two booms fails to take into account Alberta's population growth over the past three decades, said Employment and Immigration spokesman Barrie Harrison.

"It's safe to say our workforce was not near the size back then as it is now," he said. "But no one in our office is looking through rose-coloured glasses -- we're not happy with it. We know every one of those was preventable."

Harrison said the scarcity of labour could actually behove employers to ensure their workers are safe.

"Does one counter the other? I don't know if we have the answer to that right now ... but one year does not a trend make, so I think it's premature to suggest that," he said.

Nevertheless, McGowan called the province's claim of record-low injuries "disingenuous" in its reliance on lost-time claims, which dropped for a seventh straight year.

He said this fails to take into account the number of workers injured on the job who remain on modified duties.

"While it's true the accident rate declined slightly from 2006 to '07, the fact remains, those two years are the highwater marks in Alberta history for workplace accidents and fatalities," said McGowan.

He said Workers' Compensation Board numbers show total claims dropped from 181,000 to 175,000 from 2006 to '07, but are vastly increased from the 98,000 recorded in 1996.

The worst year was 1914 with 221, the bulk of them victims of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster, said Jason Foster, AFL director of policy analysis.

Calgary Sun Media, Fri Apr 18 2008
Byline: Doug McIntyre

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