Alberta minister 'disgusted' as dozens of construction sites fail safety blitz: Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk wants tickets for violations

Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said Tuesday he's "disgusted" by the number of safety infractions uncovered during an inspection blitz of Alberta construction sites, signalling he wants to start ticketing people who break laws designed to protect workers.

For six weeks in October and November, provincial workplace officers visited 73 commercial construction sites involving 146 employers in Calgary, Edmonton and other parts of Alberta.

The industry was warned of the inspection blitz. In all, 214 safety violations were discovered. A quarter of the infractions were so serious that government officers issued orders halting work or the use of equipment because employees faced imminent danger.

Top hazards involved working at heights without adequate fall protection and failing to properly safeguard against threats, such as openings in floors.

"The results are nothing but disappointing; I'm quite disgusted with the numbers," Lukaszuk said.

"What it really tells me is that they're not getting it, and when I say they, I mean everybody involved," the employment minister said.

"I made it clear that the hammer is coming down, but these results lead me to believe that the hammer will have to get bigger and bigger until we curtail these numbers."

Opposition politicians and a labour leader are skeptical of Lukaszuk's tough talk, contending the government needs to hire a lot more inspectors and take more violators to court if it's serious about cracking down and improving job safety.

Alberta workers consistently face one of the highest fatality rates in the country. During the past decade's frenzied economic boom, 1,285 employees lost their lives.

Yet a Herald investigation published in June revealed Alberta was the least likely province to prosecute safety offenders in 2008.

"This is a really big problem. Tough rhetoric isn't going to fix" it, said Gil McGowan, president to the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"The only thing that is going to fix the problem is a dramatically different approach on the province's part to inspection and enforcement, and that means new resources."

The Stelmach government has embarked on a series of changes to its workplace enforcement system this year after numerous problems were exposed in separate probes by the auditor general and the Herald. On Tuesday, Lukaszuk pledged more measures are in the works, noting Alberta is examining workplace safety tools used in other provinces and countries.

In the meantime, increased scrutiny of commercial construction projects will continue, and inspection blitzes will expand next year to include residential construction and sectors that rely heavily on forklifts and young workers.

Lukaszuk said he's also ready to move forward with a ticketing system for workplace safety violations, a model in force in several other provinces.

Government occupational officers would be given the power to issue on-the-spot fines to employers and workers, an idea explored -- and later abandoned -- under the Klein government.

"These (inspection) numbers only reinforce my resolve in bringing it into play," Lukaszuk said.

Alberta Employment is ironing out the details of a workplace ticketing plan with the Justice Department. The measure would need Tory caucus and cabinet approval.

Ticketing systems, generally known as "administrative fines," vary widely across the country, ranging from penalties of a few hundred dollars in Ontario to hundreds of thousands of dollars in B.C., where the scheme is uniquely tied to an employer's size.

Strathmore-area farmer Darryl Roppel is encouraged by the Alberta government's renewed focus on workplace safety. His son Jordan was killed on the job nearly seven years ago at the age of 18, struck dead when a pickup truck's metal ball hitch broke and flew toward him.

Although provincial investigators determined proper safety practices weren't followed, no occupational charges were laid.

Roppel believes employers who break rules should be held accountable. More government inspections and on-the-stop fines should help improve job safety, he added.

"Nobody is checking these companies to see if these young kids are being properly trained," Roppel said.

"They always use the excuse that they don't have enough people to check up on this. Well, I think it's time they start getting some people to do this."

The Liberals and NDP aren't surprised by the troubling results of the government's construction inspection blitz. The opposition parties contend too many employers have been allowed to break safety rules without tough consequences for years.

Grit MLA Hugh MacDonald, the party's labour critic, wants the province to pour more money into enforcement by reducing insurance rebates given to companies with government-endorsed safety certificates. Last year, employers received $70 million in rebates from the Workers' Compensation Board, while $15 million was spent enforcing workplace laws.

MacDonald noted over the past five years that between 65 and 80 per cent of all job site inspections resulted in the issuing of a safety order.

"A lot of these violations save the owners time and money in the short run," the Liberal MLA said. "Voluntary compliance hasn't worked."

Calgary Herald, Wed Jan 5 2011
Byline: Renata D'Aliesio

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