Workplace injuries: good news and bad: Alberta workplace injuries at a new low, despite tragedy

EDMONTON - On the same day news broke of an Alberta worker being killed by deadly gas at a job site, Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said Alberta's workplace injury rates for 2010 are at a 20-year record low.

Lost-time claim rates, which track workers who receive reimbursement for full or partially lost wages because of a job-related injury or disease, were down to 1.41 injuries for every 100 full-time jobs.

Alberta Employment and Immigration, which released the statistics Sunday, says that's the lowest rate in 20 years of data gathering, though critics question their veracity.

The lost-time rate is down from a rate of 1.53 last year and down from 4.13 in 1991.

"For the last 10 years, year-to-year the number of injuries has been dropping quite significantly," Lukaszuk said.

The disabling injury claim rate, which includes workers injured yet able to do modified work, also decreased to 2.67 per 100 full-time jobs in 2010. That's down from 2.79 in 2009, and 3.34 per 100 in 2008.

"One could conclude we are moving in the right direction, but still have a lot of work to do," said Lukaszuk.

"We have definitely increased enforcement of occupational health and safety laws. We have definitely boosted our educational component. Now, what needs to happen is a cultural shift."

But one all-important statistic — workplace-related fatalities — increased to 136 last year from 110 in 2009. That compares to 165 deaths in 2008.

The provincial fatality rate increased nearly 24 per cent to 78 fatalities per million full-time jobs in 2010.

Of the 136 deaths, 43 were workplace incidents, 31 were motor vehicle incidents and 62 were occupational disease.

"It's agents or chemicals that workers were exposed to decades ago and now the condition has progressed and obviously ended in a fatality," Lukaszuk said.

The high occupational disease rate has pushed the province to develop ways to reduce occupational disease by working with Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and Workers Compensation Board, he said.

"We are developing strategies on now preventing exposure to those agents so that 10, 15, 20 years from now a minister will not have to be reporting fatalities as a result of occupational diseases."

Lukaszuk said his department has taken steps to increase workplace safety enforcement and awareness, including publishing all employers' safety records online and increasing advertising.

"I'm hiring a large number of additional health and safety officers who will randomly visit job sites."

Gil McGowan, who was newly re-elected on the weekend as president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said lost-time claim and disabling injury claim rates are misleading measures because employers may under-report injuries in order to pay lower WCB premiums.

"The only statistic that can be relied on as an accurate measure of workplace safety in Alberta is the fatality rate because you can't hide a dead body," McGowan said.

"Employers can and do hide injuries. It makes absolutely no sense to say that fatality rates will go up while at the same injury rates are going down."

The government has announced 30 new health and safety inspectors over three years to help prevent unsafe practices, but McGowan said that only brings Alberta closer to the national average.

"We have so many more people in our province working in dangerous occupations as a proportion of our labour force than other provinces."

Bob Barnetson, assistant professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, estimated every year in Alberta about half a million workers suffer minor to fatal injuries, if unreported and unreportable injuries are factored in.

"That suggests to me that Alberta's occupational health and safety system doesn't work," Barnetson said.

"There's basically no chance you're going to get caught violating the health and safety code. There are about 100 inspectors and there are about 140,000 employers in Alberta, many of whom will have more than one work site

"And if you do violate the law, even if you kill somebody, there's very little chance you're going to get prosecuted."

Barnetson said inspectors need the ability to ticket employers on the spot.

Lukaszuk said he plans to announce new enforcement tools.

"Right now, we have very effective tools for employers who have in a gross manner not adhered to regulations. We also have orders that demand employers change their job site.

"My officers have been telling me ... that some intermediate tools, in-between, are required not only aimed at employers but also at workers."

Lukaszuk also expressed condolences for a man killed and two workers hospitalized after hydrogen sulphide leaked Saturday night from a gas production line south of Fox Creek.

He said charges will be laid if any laws were broken in the incident.

Edmonton Journal, Mon May 2 2011
Byline: Bill Mah

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