Government contradicted by new work absence statistics

New figures acquired by the Alberta Federation of Labour show that in 1998, work absence due to illness, injury and disability were at their highest level in a decade. This contradicts the Alberta government and WCB claim that Alberta workplaces are safer than ever. The statistics released by the AFL today suggest that many Alberta workers are getting injured at work but not receiving WCB benefits they deserve.

The AFL requested Statistics Canada to calculate the 1998 "Work Absence Rate" for Alberta, a measurement of how many workers are missing work due to injury, illness or disability. The StatsCan numbers show that the absence rate because of injury is the highest in almost a decade.

In 1998, the Alberta work absence rate (illness and disability) was 4.0. This is up slightly from 3.9 in 1997 and substantially higher than recent years, when the rate hovered below 3.5. It is the highest figure since 1989.

Workers are also missing more days due to injury. In 1998 an Alberta worker missed an average of 5.5 days due to injury or illness. This is up significantly from 1997 when an average of 5.1 days were missed. It is also the highest rate since 1989.

"Workers are getting hurt more now than at anytime during the past ten years. More workers are getting hurt and they are missing more days," says AFL President Audrey Cormack.

"What this tells us is that WCB's boast about record low time-loss claims need to be viewed with suspicion," adds Cormack. "They have a credibility gap."

In its Annual Report for 1998/99, Alberta Labour states that "lost-time claims" are at their lowest level in history, reaching 3.3 claims per 100 person-years. This is down from 4.9 in 1990. They attribute this drop to the government's policy of self-enforcement and financial "incentives" to employers.

The real reason for the discrepancy, suggests Cormack, is that government and WCB policy hasn't improved safety in workplaces, but has instead discouraged the reporting of accidents to the WCB. "Employers now have a built in motivation to hide WCB claims. And with self-regulation, there is no one in the field making sure employers obey the law," notes Cormack

The AFL also points out that WCB's own statistics show that workplace injuries are at record highs. The total number of claims involving injuries was 126,420 in 1998, the highest level ever recorded and double the number recorded in 1990. "You don't read that side of the equation in government press releases," says Cormack.

The statistics suggest workers are injured at work as frequently as before, but they are not receiving the WCB benefits to which they are entitled. "WCB has balanced its books by lowering the number of legitimate injured workers who receive compensation."

"The reality in Alberta workplaces is that more workers are getting injured than ever before, and that time loss rates are on the increase, just that workers aren't getting their fair shake from the system," says Cormack.

Cormack says these figures demonstrate that it is time to re-think the government's policy of self-regulation and incentive-based occupational safety.

"Sometimes you need the government to act like a government to get things done. In this case, that means enforcing our health and safety laws," Cormack concludes.

Statistics Canada and WCB Compared

AFL Backgrounder -- January 13, 2000
Alberta Work Absence Rates

Statistics Canada Work Absence Rate
Statistics Canada measures in its annual Labour Force Survey the incidence of work absences in Canada. They recently released the figures for Canada for 1998. No Alberta numbers were available. The AFL commissioned StatsCan to produce the 1998 figures for Alberta, the latest year for which data is available.

The "Work Absence Rate" measures the number of workers reporting an absence from work during the week they are surveyed. It is recorded as a percentage of the workforce. The AFL is releasing the percentage of workers who reported missing work "due to own illness or disability", which means only those workers who were sick or injured. Work absences for other reasons were not included. The Survey does not distinguish between work-related and non-work-related illness.

The "Days lost per worker" is the average number of days a worker is absent from work during the calendar year for illness or disability.

Alberta Work Absence Rate (Disability/Illness), Statistics Canada
Absence Rate (%) Days Lost Per Worker (# of days)
1990 3.9 5.1
1991 3.8 5.2
1992 3.5 5.0
1993 3.6 5.1
1994 3.4 4.8
1995 3.3 5.0
1996 3.0 4.3
1997 3.9 5.1
1998 4.0 5.5

WCB Claim Rate
Alberta WCB uses a different rate to measure workplace safety. It utilized the "Lost Time Claim Rate", which is the number of new claims filed with WCB which result in a worker missing time at work. WCB uses this rate to set individual employer premium rates. It is measured as the number of claims per 100 workers.

The "Total Claims" is the total number of new claims opened at WCB during the year, including claims involving no missed time from work.

WCB Claim Rates
Lost Time Claim Rate Total Claims
1990 4.9 64,503
1991 4.3 55,162
1992 3.7 75,835
1993 3.5 92,025
1994 3.5 93,187
1995 3.4 91,349
1996 3.4 98,303
1997 3.4 118,121
1998 3.3 126,420

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