Bring hammer down harder on work safety

"It was not supposed to happen."

Those are the words of Mariana Krsek, whose three-year-old daughter Michelle died 16 months ago, crushed by sheets of metal blown off the roof of a Calgary skyscraper that was under construction. She was walking innocently with her family near the Calgary Tower when she and her father were struck.

No, it should not have happened. Both regulations and common sense require construction workers to secure equipment and materials. But has the industry learned anything from Michelle's death? Apparently not.

Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk says the tragedy was a factor is his decision to launch a crackdown on workplace safety violations this fall. Inspections of 73 commercial construction sites uncovered an appalling 214 violations. Lukaszuk says he is disappointed and disgusted. The results of the six-week blitz serve as a bleak reminder that Alberta still has a long way to go to improve its workplace safety record.

During the past decade, work accidents have killed 1,285 employees, making this province one of the most dangerous places to work in Canada. In 2008, there were 5.9 deaths per hundred thousand workers in Alberta compared to the national average of 4.2 deaths. The Alberta Federation of Labour claims Alberta spends less per worker on workplace safety than most other provinces.

Lukaszuk vows that "the hammer is coming down." That is refreshing to hear. He has promised to expand the blitz next year to include residential construction sites. That's a good idea. But it is one thing to talk tough and very much another to take steps to fix the problem. This is the minister who promised to publish the names of the companies with the worst safety records, but delivered a Pablum of statistics that were virtually meaningless to the average Albertan and that deliberately excluded information about safety violations.

After prodding by the auditor general and a series of in-depth stories on workplace safety by the Calgary Herald, Premier Ed Stelmach has vowed to take action to improve the province's workplace safety record. Lukaszuk says he is ready to move forward with a plan to empower safety inspectors to issue on-the-spot tickets for safety violations -- an idea explored and abandoned by the former Klein government six years ago. Five other provinces -- B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia -- already empower their inspectors to hand out immediate tickets rather than dragging violators to court under occupational safety or Criminal Code laws. The Alberta Construction Safety Association supports the idea. They have recommended that construction workers caught breaking the rules get fined $250, while their bosses would get dinged $500 for failing to ensure the safety of their employees.

Lukaszuk says the results of the safety blitz have reinforced his resolve to introduce the fines. Hopefully he will introduce a fine program that is more than the slap on the wrist suggested by the safety association. Perhaps he should bring in a system more along the lines of the British Columbia model, which assesses fines ranging up to hundreds of thousands of dollars based on the size of the company. If this province is serious about improving the safety of workers, and innocent people such as little Michelle Krsek, it has to swing a bigger hammer at offenders and put more resources into inspections and workplace safety programs.

Going to work shouldn't be this dangerous.

Edmonton Journal, Sun Dec 16 2010

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