Alberta on-job deaths up 24%: Poor training of new workers blamed for rise

The number of workplace deaths in Alberta soared 24 per cent in 2007 -- to one of the highest numbers on record -- highlighting occupational dangers and inadequate safety training provided to workers flooding into an overheated economy.

Occupational fatalities in the province jumped to 154 in 2007 from 124 in 2006 -- numbers the Stelmach government says are symptomatic of inexperienced workers entering potentially dangerous workplaces.

"There's no denying that 154 workplace fatalities is way too many," Employment and Immigration Minister Hector Goudreau told the legislature Thursday. "One fatality is way too many."

The minister noted, however, the provincial injury rate hit an all-time low in 2007, based on the lost-time claim rates.

Nevertheless, as Alberta's population has exploded in recent years with the economic boom, so, too, have the number of workplace deaths. The 154 fatalities in 2007 were the most in at least 10 years and approached the record 169 deaths recorded in both 1980 and 1982.

But the 24 per cent spike in deaths in 2007 far surpassed the 3.3 per cent increase in the size of Alberta's workforce, which reached almost two million people.

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

"That's not a good figure," Smith told the Herald.

He noted, though, the family does not make a connection between the statistics and Sean's death, and he would be disturbed by the numbers even if his son had not died.

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

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

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

Included in the 2007 fatalities were 44 motor vehicle incidents, 47 workplace incidents and 63 occupational disease deaths, such as asbestosis. The true number of deaths is probably higher because the province won't cover many farm workers in provincial workplace legislation.

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

One of the most unfortunate fatalities -- also a stark example of how workplace deaths can affect anyone -- involved a 54-year-old restaurant worker who tripped over a case on the floor while carrying several trays. The worker broke a leg and died subsequently in hospital due to complications brought on by a serious post-operative wound infection.

Goudreau suggested the alarming numbers result from several factors, including a fresh wave of new workers being hired who aren't ready for a certain line of work, as well as companies failing to properly train all their employees. He said the government will ratchet up its efforts with employers and workers in hopes of curbing the disturbing trend.

The spike in the fatality rate between 2006 and 2007 should raise alarm bells for both the government and employers, said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.

"It's an indication there's a real and growing problem with safety on worksites across the province," he said. "Workers are paying with their bodies and sometimes their lives."

McGowan said government has an "obligation" to step up enforcement during times of economic boom because employers often cut corners, usually relating to health and safety. Instead, it has been "business as usual," he said.

McGowan acknowledged there had been a slight dip in the number of work-related accidents between 2006 and 2007, but said over the long term, both years saw dramatically higher rates than the province has traditionally experienced.

In 1996, there were 98,000 workplace accidents; in 2006, there were 181,000, McGowan said, adding the workforce has not doubled during that time.

"For them to say we're moving in the right direction is to ignore what has actually been happening in the last decade," he said.

Opposition parties demanded the government immediately increase the number of workplace safety inspectors and random inspections of job sites.

"The government has paid nothing but lip service to this issue," said NDP Leader Brian Mason. "They've never taken effective action to reduce workplace injuries."

Liberal employment critic Hugh MacDonald said all Albertans -- including employers, workers and politicians -- have a responsibility to ensure the alarming fatality rates quickly improve.

"Everyone has an obligation to ensure that trend is not only halted, but reversed," MacDonald said.

Workplace fatalities in Alberta 2007: 154 2006: 124 2005: 143 2004: 124 2003: 127 2002: 101 2001: 118 2000: 118 1999: 114 1998: 105

Record number of fatalities: 169 in both 1980 and 1982

Calgary Herald, page A1, Fri Apr 18 2008
Byline: Jason Fekete and Gwendolyn Richards

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