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Buried and Forgotten

Newspaper Coverage of Workplace Injury and Death in Alberta

Buried and Forgotten

Newspaper articles are key sources of information about workplace injuries and fatalities. The impressions gleaned from these reports shape how Alberta workers, members of the public, and policy-makers view workplace injury and safety. Yet research on Alberta newspaper articles published between 2009 and 2014 suggests these reports create a misleading picture of workplace injuries and fatalities.

More specifically:

  • Women’s experiences of workplace injury are almost entirely ignored. This reflects the over-reporting of injuries to men and injuries to workers in blue-collar occupations. 
  • The vast majority of workplace injuries are never reported. Instead, reporters focus almost exclusively on (relatively rare) occupational fatalities. 
  • Reporters rely heavily on government and employer sources in the stories. Workers and their advocates are rarely quoted about an incident or its causes. 
  • Reporters use three basic story templates that frame workplace injuries as under investigation, before the courts, or human tragedies.

Together, these three media frames create a meta-narrative wherein injuries are isolated events that happen to “others,” and for which no one is responsible (except maybe the worker). This, in turn, suggests that the public need not be concerned about workplace safety.

This inaccurate picture of workplace injury may skew public perceptions of workplace injury, with Alberta workers, members of the public, and policy-makers potentially under-estimating the risk of workplace injury. This, in turn, is likely to dampen demand for effective occupational health and safety (OHS) enforcement (which Alberta currently lacks).

If more accurate information was provided to Albertans about the extent of workplace injury and death, more Albertans may be moved to pressure the government to intensify enforcement. Albertans may also directly pressure employers who do not meet their OHS obligations to create a safe workplace. Albertans may choose not to purchase the products and services offered by unsafe employers. And workers might seek employment elsewhere.

The combination of the government’s inadequate communication about injuries and newspapers’ incomplete coverage creates a situation where Albertans cannot learn of the full extent of workplace injuries and fatalities in the province. In this information vacuum, the issue of Alberta’s profoundly unsafe workplaces is obscured and public pressure is not brought to bear on government and employers to make workplaces safer. The ultimate consequence is that workers continue to be needlessly injured and killed on the job.

If newspapers are not the ideal vehicle for communicating information about workplace injuries and fatalities to the public, it may be necessary for the government to make greater efforts to communicate accurate information about workplace injury and death to the public. Improving the amount and quality of information provided to Albertans about workplace injury is the focus of the 10 recommendations which conclude this report.

ISBN: 978-1-894949-54-5

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016), co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016), and author of Canada’s Labour Market Training System (Athabasca University Press, 2018).

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Jason Foster

Jason Foster is the director of Parkland Institute and an associate professor of human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University. Jason is the author of Gigs, Hustles, & Temps (2023) and Defying Expectations: The Case of UFCW Local 401 (2018), as well as co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (2016). His research interests include workplace injury, union renewal, labour and employment policy, and migrant workers in Canada. He is committed to sharing research to as broad an audience as possible, so that it might contribute to policy change and making people’s lives better.

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