When will we learn? Day of Mourning remembers 143 Alberta workers killed last year

Last year in Alberta 143 workers were killed because of work. This is the highest number of fatalities in 25 years, and the sixth worst in Alberta's 101 year history.

Every year Albertans, along with hundreds of thousands of people around the world, mark April 28 as the International Day of Mourning. It is a day to remember the needless loss of life at work and to reflect on what we can do to prevent such tragedies.

It is important to take time to stop and remember. But for those of us who have worked on occupational health and safety for many years, April 28 has also become a day of great frustration.

Things are not getting better. In fact they are getting worse. We aren't learning any lessons from the loss of life.

Signs of Alberta's latest economic boom are everywhere - new construction, industry expansion, job openings popping up like dandelions. But with the boom we also see an increase in injuries and deaths. The Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) reports that last year there were 170,000 recorded accidents in Alberta - a rate of almost 500 per day.

In this boom employers are scrambling just to keep up with the demand. Focus is on getting the work done. Unfortunately, safety is one of the first corners cut. Far too often I hear the excuse "there isn't enough time to do things safely".

Cutting corners during a boom is one problem. The other is when the boom ends. In tougher times, companies tighten their belt, and safety is one of the first budget items cut. Safety is deemed too expensive.

It makes one ask, when is the right time to make safety a priority?

The picture is even worse than official records indicate. Cancer caused by workplace exposure to cancer-causing substances like asbestos, benzene or carbon affects thousands of workers - and their suffering is not recorded by the WCB or the provincial government.

According to WCB statistics, the WCB accepted 29 new claims for work-related cancer and recognized 38 fatalities due to occupational cancer in 2005.

However, the Alberta Cancer Board estimates that 8% of all cancers in Alberta are work-related. This means over 1,000 new cases of work-related cancer are diagnosed and more than 400 workers die of occupational cancer each year.

Fewer than one in ten occupational cancer fatalities are recognized by the WCB. I consider this a moral outrage.

What about the government? Isn't it their job to protect worker safety? You may have seen the government's ads with pictures of workers doing unsafe things with the word "stupid" in big print. The government's response to the rash of workplace injuries is to call workers "stupid".

The government's main job is to enforce the Health and Safety Act, which lays out rules every employer and worker are supposed to obey. Except that there are fewer than 90 enforcement officers to inspect more than 150,000 workplaces in Alberta. There is no way a handful of officers can keep an eye on even a small fraction of Alberta workplaces. As a result, enforcement is virtually non-existent.

The government refuses to publish the names of employers with the worst safety records so workers can protect themselves. They refuse to prosecute any but the most serious infractions.

The end result? The number of deaths keeps climbing.

We have created a system designed to save money rather than save lives.

The incentives in the system are cost-based, rather than safety-based. Employers earn WCB premium reductions for reducing the amount of time workers lose at work due to accidents. Employers can minimize disruptions to productivity through modified work and case management.

In both cases, an employer can save significant money without actually making their workplace any safer. Implement an aggressive modified work program - which gives injured workers alternative work to perform - and watch your WCB costs drop. However, you can achieve the goal without a single accident being prevented.

Government regulations are quite detailed at protecting workers from falls or collisions. But the lack of enforcement undermines their effectiveness. And the regulations are virtually silent in protecting workers from exposure to chemicals that will lead to cancer down the road.

Workers have an important role in working safely. They need to work safe, and watch out for co-workers. But there is only so much a worker can do to prevent accidents. Workers don't have the power to lower fugitive benzene emissions, or reduce their exposure to damaging noise or other hazards. That power rests with employers and the government.

And employers and the government simply aren't prepared to take the bold steps necessary to bring a halt to workplace death. As a consequence, every year we are forced to remember increasing numbers of workers killed because of work. And every year we fail to learn the lesson of 143 workers dying needlessly because we put our priority on profit rather than people's lives.

Time to heed the lesson. Time to get serious about stopping the scourge of workplace death.

Jason Foster, AFL Executive Staff
April 2006

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