Naming names: Alberta's employment ministry vows to identify the worst safety performers, but behind the scenes, the province is still fighting to keep this information secret

This year, about 1,900 Alberta employers have been flagged with substandard safety records, a figure that's surged by a third in the past 10 years.

Nearly 300 have been on the Workers' Compensation Board's poor performers list for at least half a decade.

Yet, eight years after the provincial government passed legislation allowing it to publicize which companies hold the worst safety records, it continues to fight against releasing the information. So does the WCB, the provincial insurance agency responsible for compensating injured workers.

Today, their stance is under fire from a diverse group of industry supporters, opposition critics, families -- and even a former labour minister in the Klein government. The group believes the information must be released to deter the worst offenders.

"It should be public. Then maybe the safety would be better," says James St. Marie, whose brother, Keith, was crushed by a communications tower near Olds in 2003.

Likewise, the Construction Owners Association of Alberta -- which represents several oilpatch giants with mega-building projects -- favours outing employers with lousy safety records, saying it would help companies choose contractors and improve safety at job sites.

"Those contractors out there that find themselves on that list, I mean that is negative publicity for them," says Ron Genereux, association president and a Suncor Energy executive. "By virtue of that fact, you'll see them improve and try to work hard to just get off that list."

The fight over safety data traces back almost a decade.

At the time, then-employment minister Clint Dunford began warning executives the province would soon let Albertans know which companies don't take safety seriously.

Today, the former Tory minister remains adamant workers have a right to their companies' safety records.

"I want young people to know when they go and apply for work with an employer, that he's either got a good reputation or a bad reputation," says Dunford, who retired from politics in 2008.

"I don't care whether they go and work for the ones with the bad reputation, I'm just telling them then be G--damn careful of what you're getting into."

But Dunford's push to release safety records met with staunch resistance.

Worried about getting sued by companies, some senior department officials opposed publicizing the information, he recalls. Some Conservative politicians also expressed concern.

"The opposition wasn't overt," Dunford says. "It was the sort of thing where somebody would whisper to you, 'Well, I've got quite a bit of support in the business area and I'm not sure they're going to want to be agreeing to all of this kind of stuff .'"

Dunford was moved to another portfolio in November 2004 before he could gain enough support for his plan. His successor, Mike Cardinal, put the initiative on hold. Cardinal won't discuss the matter with the Herald, nor will former premier Ralph Klein.
The issue of identifying companies with substandard safety histories is on the front burner again after the province's auditor general revealed the government wasn't cracking down on employers who repeatedly break occupational laws.

In response, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk pledged in the legislature to release safety records of all companies.

However, he first wants to make sure there's no unintended consequences.

"Competitors will use it in the industry for their purposes. Employees will be using it in the process of decision-making, whether they want to get hired by a certain company or not," Lukaszuk tells the Herald.

"Companies that put out contracts ... will take that into determination because who wants to hire a poor performer? So it has many, many implications."

The minister has struck a committee to review how workplace safety statistics are gathered and what effect releasing the information would have on businesses. Recommendations are expected this summer.

Yet behind the scenes, the government is still fighting to suppress the names of employers with high injury rates, information sought by unions through the freedom-of-information law four years ago.

In arguing to keep secret the names of companies targeted for extra inspections, Alberta Employment and Immigration contends it doesn't want these companies to know they're under watch, documents provided to the Herald show.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan is skeptical of Lukaszuk's talk of transparency.

"Given this government's track record on issues related to disclosure, I'll believe it when I see it," McGowan says. "Talk is cheap."

The battle between the province and unions isn't the only information fight underway.

Last June, the Workers' Compensation Board rejected the Herald's freedom-of-information request for names of companies paying a surcharge because of high injury claims.

The insurance board contends disclosing their identities could encourage some employers to break the law and not report worker injuries, documents show. It also notes it's obligated under provincial law to protect the business interests of employers.
"Publishing the names of poor performing employers is of little value to improving safety on a work site," states an internal WCB media strategy obtained by the Herald through a second freedom-of-information request.

"It's more beneficial to work with these employers to encourage and reward improved safety performance."

Alberta's information and privacy commissioner is considering whether to hold an inquiry into the board's decision to withhold its poor performers list.

The WCB has been tracking companies with substandard safety records since 1998, levying surcharges against employers with consistently high worker injuries.

The surcharges were hiked two years ago because the agency was worried some companies were simply treating the penalty as a "cost of doing business."

Calgary Herald, Fri Jun 25 2010
Byline: Renata D'Aliesio

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