Measures take aim at workplace safety offenders

Alberta employers punished with creative sentence fines after a worker is seriously injured or killed will now be tracked under the same provincial system that looks at whether all other court-ordered penalties are paid or not.

The news comes on the same day that Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk announced he will be hiring 10 new occupational health and safety officers each year, for the next three years. These provincial employees conduct on-the-spot inspections of companies, educate employers and workers on safety laws, and investigate serious incidents.

These two new measures are part of a series of actions taken by the government to crack down on workplace safety offenders, an initiative begun last year.

In 2010, a major Herald investigation of Alberta workplace deaths and creative sentencing procedures highlighted the province's lack of oversight on penalties. Up until this year, the government hasn't systematically followed whether companies convicted of safety offences have actually paid their fines or not.

"We do have now a system in place for ensuring that occupational health and safety creative sentences are tracked and followed up on," said David Dear, a spokesman for Alberta Justice.

From now on, the fines will be tracked through a database in the same manner as other court-imposed penalties, such as speeding tickets. If they are not paid, the fines enforcement unit is called in to try to force the person or company to pay. As a last resort, the unit is able to seize assets and property.

Last fall, it was revealed Alberta companies haven't paid at least $1.7 million in traditional and creative fines levied for worker deaths or injuries. Today, at least five creative sentence fines remain outstanding.

These penalties are called "creative" because they allow the guilty party to pay the fine to a post-secondary institution, non-profit or other organization - instead of the government - for a program or service that will help to right the original wrong.

For instance, Syncrude was ordered last month to pay $365,000 to Keyano College after Calgarian Tom Miller was killed while working in Fort McMurray in December 2008.

Miller was crushed by a falling slab of ice and Syncrude pleaded guilty to failing to provide adequate safety protocols. In that vein, the fine will be directed to improve the curriculum for oilpatch workers facing winter conditions, and for a scholarship fund in Miller's name.

The government said Friday the province will have a total of 132 occupational health and safety officers in three years, a 53 per cent increase from early 2010.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said while he's encouraged by the boost to officer ranks, he said the government is only now recovering from the Klein-era cuts of the mid-1990s. McGowan said Alberta has more high-risk industries and should have more safety officers than in other provinces.

Calgary Herald, Fri Mar 4 2011
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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