Ratchet up workplace safety enforcement: Alberta auditor

A new report by the Auditor General of Alberta suggests that the province needs to drastically improve its approach to worker safety.

The semi-annual report, released on April 14 by Merwan Saher, the province's acting auditor general, identifies a number of concerns surrounding the province's enforcement of occupational health and safety legislation. "A small but high-risk group of employers consistently fail to comply with OHS orders, often despite numerous reinspections" by Alberta Employment and Immigration (AEI), Saher writes. In addition, he points out that "half of those employers that persistently fail to comply with the OHS Act also continue to hold a valid Certificate of Recognition (COR), and continue to have elevated injury rates among their workers."

COR-holders are entitled to a rebate of up to 20 per cent of their workers' compensation premiums.

Labour federation hails "landmark" report
"It's a landmark document," comments Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). "It confirms many of our worst fears when it comes to the Alberta government's approach to workplace health and safety. In particular, it demonstrates clearly that the province hasn't been aggressively enforcing its own workplace rules."

In fact, the report notes, 63 employers in the province - whose combined work force accounted for over 31,000 employees - failed to comply with safety orders within the span of a year. It also revealed that the Office of the Auditor General examined 18 employers whose oh&s orders had been suspended. For 14 of the 18 employers, the reasons given for suspending the orders were not in line with Alberta Employment and Immigration's mandated guidelines, the report points out.

"The majority of orders were suspended simply to be reopened in the next fiscal year as new orders. This practice skews compliance statistics and may present management with a compliance picture more favourable than it really is," notes the report. "For most of the suspended orders that were later reopened, we saw no evidence that employers took action on the original contraventions."

In addition to identifying problems in the province's workplace health and safety system, the auditor general's report listed a number of recommendations for improvement. These include that: AEI enforce compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act; it improve its planning and reporting systems for workplace health and safety to reduce chronic injuries and occupational diseases; it strengthen its inspection program by improving its employer selection method and risk focus; and, it improve the system of issuing CORs by obtaining confirmation of work done by COR auditors and consistently following-up on recommendations made.

For McGowan and the AFL, the auditor general's report highlights concerns over the transition from "education to enforcement." McGowan suggests that the government's focus on education is a poor substitute for enforcement, and that the current system lacks the resources needed to effectively enforce the legislation.

"Rules mean very little if there isn't a system in place to enforce them," he observes. "The government's current approach of education and gentle persuasion may work with the majority of employers, but you clearly need a system in place to deal with those employers who refuse to get with the program and continue to put their workers at risk."

Brian Mason, leader of the Alberta NDP, urges AEI to immediately release the list of employers who have repeatedly breached oh&s orders. "We want them to lift the [CORs] of all these companies immediately," he adds. "These companies are repeat offenders. They have not responded to education."

The AFL has also called for the list of employers to be made public. "A public list would provide a positive incentive for employers to improve their workplace safety practices," McGowan notes, adding that "there's nothing like the light of public scrutiny to improve corporate behaviour."

Thomas Lukaszuk, Minister of Employment and Immigration, could not be reached for comment on the report or the provision of a public list of offenders.

Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News
Tues Apr 27 2010

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