Calgary mom outraged as stats show Alberta slow to prosecute unsafe employers

Saskatchewan prosecutes four times as many cases

The province's workplace safety prosecution record is drawing fire, as new figures show signifi cantly fewer cases were taken to court last year than in Saskatchewan, with a workforce one-quarter the size of Alberta's.

Alberta wrapped up prosecutions on 11 workplace safety cases in 2010. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, has completed 47 cases since its fiscal year began nine months ago.

Connie Field, whose 28-year-old son Jake was electrocuted at a southern Alberta job site in 2006, said the gap between the two provinces is unacceptable.

"Justice is not being done," said Field, who remains frustrated that occupational charges weren't laid in her son's death despite a government probe pointing to safety problems.

"The only way they're going to change is to hit them hard, which is the pocketbook."

Throughout the past decade, Alberta consistently had one of the highest worker fatality rates in the country, spiking at 166 deaths three years ago. Yet a Herald investigation last year showed prosecutions of workplace safety violations were rare.

Alberta Justice declined to comment Thursday on the province's prosecution rate, deferring questions to Alberta Employment.

Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said his workplace investigators forward cases to Crown lawyers for review but, as a politician, he can't press for charges, even when safety infractions are found.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan rely on similar legal tests when determining whether to issue occupational safety charges, asking: Is the case in the public interest and is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction?

Asked whether he's worried about the perception that Alberta is reluctant to take employers who break safety laws to court, Lukaszuk said he's not fixated on the prosecution rate.

"Justice is not a numbers game," the employment minister said. "At the end of the day, I'm not in the business of generating numbers of prosecutions. I'm not in the business of convictions.

"I'm in the business of making

sure that every Albertan comes home safe at the end of the shift."

Alberta Employment statistics released Thursday show worker deaths last year were ahead of the previous year's pace. With two months left to count, 111 employees died in 2010, compared with 85 during the same stretch in 2009.

The province recently revamped its workplace safety enforcement system, hiring additional inspectors, posting company safety records online, and targeting high-risk industries for safety blitzes.

Field, however, contends these measures are "window dressing." If the province was serious about cracking down on safety breaches,

she believes more employers would face court action.

NDP MLA Rachel Notley and union leader Gil McGowan agree.

"It's clear that Alberta is still lagging behind other provinces in terms of prosecutions for workplace health and safety violations," said McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"The minister talks a tough game and he likes to say his government is willing to put its money where its mouth is, but these numbers suggest to me that's not happening."

Workplace safety prosecutions have ramped up in Saskatchewan since the province introduced a zero-tolerance policy for violations involving inadequate fall protection at construction sites.

Glennis Bihun, executive director of Saskatchewan's occupational health and safety division, said roughly three-quarters of the 60 prosecutions launched in 2010-11 stem from its zero-tolerance approach.

"In those occasions where the risk to life is extremely high or in those infrequent occasions where there isn't a desire for compliance, there needs to be a penalty or a consequence," Bihun said.

In Alberta, occupational safety charges are rarely laid unless a worker is seriously injured or killed. The province's Employment Department notes Saskatchewan has a significantly higher worker injury frequency than Alberta. However, several safety experts contend comparing injury rates is difficult because tracking systems often vary widely from province to province.

Last month, Alberta's employment minister expressed disgust at the results of an inspection blitz of Alberta construction sites.

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.

In all, 214 safety violations were discovered. Top hazards involved working at heights without adequate fall protection and failing to properly safeguard against threats, such as openings in floors.

Notley of the NDP argues Alberta should follow Saskatchewan's model and target violations before employees are maimed. "What Alberta has to do is . . . prosecute any violation which undermines the culture of safety.

"Those seemingly less significant violations are as integral to the accidents that ultimately happen. All violations need to be taken seriously," said Notley.

Calgary Herald, Wednesday, Dec 5, 2012
Byline:  Renata D'aliesio

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