Fines spike for unsafe job sites: Alberta firms ordered to pay $3.6M this year

A little more than halfway through the year, the dollar amount of fines levied against Alberta companies convicted of workplace safety violations is more than twice the total amount from all of last year.

More than $3.6 million in fines have been handed down so far this year, compared to around $1.7 million for all of last year.

The higher total is a sign the courts are growing weary of companies that let safety fall by the wayside, those involved in prosecuting the cases say.

However, critics say Alberta still lags far behind other provinces when it comes to going after companies whose workers die or are seriously injured on the job.

The doubling can't be pinned on a proportionate increase in convictions. The fines this year have come against 14 companies, while last year's total came against 12 companies.

What the 2008 numbers do show are heftier fines compared to years past, with the average penalty sitting just above $280,000 so far this year. The maximum fine is $500,000.

The hike in punishments shows courts are growing "increasingly intolerant" of workplace safety violations, said provincial Occupational Health and Safety spokesman Barrie Harrison.

"They're tired of seeing these things. They're throwing the book at (companies)."

Harrison said he's not aware of a company that's been taken to court twice by the province, an indicator they get the message sent by the fines.

All but three of the 14 convictions this year have been in connection with workplace deaths.

The cases stemmed from incidents dating anywhere from October 2003 to August 2005.

Brian Caruk, an assistant chief Crown prosecutor who handles 20 to 30 workplace safety cases a year, said judges have been raising the fines because whatever they've handed out in the past hasn't shown them companies are changing their ways.

"Companies are in business to make money, and if they're funneling significant money away from profitability, they're going to feel that," he said.

The higher total this year didn't impress Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, who said the province is generally reluctant to take companies to court when it comes to workplace safety.

"I know how they're going to spin this: 'We're getting tough,' " McGowan said. "The Alberta government is only getting tough compared to its own sorry track record over the last 20 years."

McGowan pointed to B.C. as an example. That province handed out 221 penalties totalling $4.2 million last year, though it typically levies fines administratively, without taking the company to court. Only one company was convicted in court of a workplace safety violation last year in B.C.

McGowan said last year's conviction total in Alberta pales compared to the 172,000 injury accidents he said occurred in the province in 2007.

"One-hundred-and-seventy-two-thousand injury accidents and 12 (convictions) -- something doesn't add up," he said.

There were 154 workplace deaths in Alberta last year, including 63 occupational disease deaths that can stem from jobs dating back several years.

Last year's death total was 24 per cent higher than the previous year, though it did not reach the record 169 workplace deaths in both 1980 and 1982.

There have been 23 suspected workplace deaths so far this year (some have yet to be officially linked with the victim's job). Many of the investigations into last year's and this year's deaths have yet to be wrapped up, since the province has up to two years to file charges.

For two parents who lost their son in a workplace accident three years ago, the fines that have been handed down aren't high enough.

Ed Dore was 28 years old when he died in 2005, after being trapped in a machine used for shaping and cutting steel. He wasn't properly trained on the machine, and other safety measures weren't followed.

His company, Exchanger Industries, was fined $325,000 earlier this year in connection with his death.

Almost all of that cash went to SAIT through what the province calls creative sentencing, which lets victims and their families choose an organization or two to receive the cash.

Jean Dore, Ed's mother, said she's glad the average penalty is rising, but she doesn't think companies -- many of which are doing better because of the economic boom -- really get the message over the long term.

"I'd like the companies to think about safety and not just getting the job done, because that's when accidents happen," she said.

She pointed out a second worker died at her son's company almost a year to the day after her son died.

Blair Wetmore, the president of Exchanger Industries, said the province found the company did nothing wrong in the death of Carlos Afonso, who was caught between two large metal cylinders and crushed by steel while assembling oilfield equipment.

Wetmore said the punishment was harsh enough to send a message.

"No one wants to pay out money, obviously, and no one wants to be involved in a workplace death," he said.

Calgary Herald, Mon July 21 2008
Byline: Joel Kom

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