Fewer workplace deaths, fewer prosecutions: Alberta gov't not serious enough about safety violations, critics say

For the first time in years, fewer Albertans lost their lives last year in work-related deaths as a global recession slowed production and squeezed people out of tens of thousands of jobs.

However, completed prosecutions of workplace fatalities and injuries dropped to their lowest level since 2004, prompting critics to charge the Alberta government isn't serious enough about pursuing companies that violate safety rules.

"The number of prosecutions in Alberta has always been low compared to other jurisdictions, and unfortunately it seems to be heading in the wrong direction," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
According to government statistics released Monday, occupational fatalities plunged in 2009 to their lowest level in seven years, with 110 people dying either on the job, driving to a work site or as a result of an occupational disease.

The figure marks a 34-per-cent decrease from 2008's record high of 166 job-related deaths. Farm workers, who aren't covered by the Workers Compensation Board, aren't included in the tally.

A provincial analysis of last year's fatalities won't be completed until April, but Employment and Immigration spokesman Chris Chodan suspects Alberta's economic downturn played a role in the sizable decrease.

It's not yet known whether the province's fatality rate -- the number of deaths relative to the number of people working -- has also gone down.

"One year doesn't make a trend, (but) we're glad to see that the number went down," Chodan said from Edmonton.
"We've been seeing the injury rate track downward over the last several years and hopefully we'll see it go down again this year for 2009."

Deaths decreased in all three categories: 41 people died in workplace incidents compared with 52 in 2008; 20 workers died in motor vehicle crashes versus 50 people the year earlier; and 49 people died because of an occupational disease compared with 64 in 2008.

Also down were the number of workers in Alberta.
Chodan said nearly two million Albertans were employed in 2009, 25,200 fewer people than the previous year.

Despite the high number of workplace deaths during boom times, only nine prosecutions were finished in 2009, with $712,975 collected from safety violators.

In 2008, the province completed 22 prosecutions involving workplace deaths and injuries. Companies were fined a record $5 million.

Chodan said the drop-off reflects the speed of the court system, noting there's been no decrease in Crown attorneys.

Despite last year's drop in deaths, the amount of people dying because of their job remains troubling, said Bob Barnetson, who specializes in labour relations at Athabasca University.

"It's still a terrible number," he said. "Those people went to work, they have kids, something happened at work, and they get killed."

Barnetson suggested the Alberta government should be tougher on companies breaking safety rules.

He'd like to see the province grant occupational safety inspectors the authority to issue fines, instead of relying solely on the courts to dole out penalties for violations. Inspectors have this power in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Alberta examined the idea in 2003, but never moved forward with it.

"We weren't really sure of what the effect would be. Different jurisdictions do it differently," said Chodan, noting inspectors can order a company to stop work until safety problems are fixed.

Lloyd Harman, vice-president of safety services for Enform, a petroleum industry safety association, is not in favour of granting inspectors the authority to fine, saying he believes collaboration between government and employers yields better safety.

"There's no silver bullet," he said. "It's a number of things that all need to be taken to prevent incidents."
Union leader McGowan has lobbied for years for stronger government rules. Like Barnetson, he thinks Alberta should adopt a workplace fine system. McGowan also wants the province to do more safety inspections and make workplace safety committees mandatory.

Calgary Herald, Tues Feb 2 2010
Byline: Renata D'Aliesio

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