As workers across the province prepare to mark the April 28 Day of Mourning for workers killed, injured, and disabled on the job, a new report from the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute suggests that official statistics are radically underestimating the scale of workplace injury in the province.
Based on a poll of 2,000 Alberta workers, Safer by Design: How Alberta Can Improve Workplace Safety suggests that almost 70% of disabling workplace injuries in Alberta go unreported. Government statistics reported 45,543 injuries serious enough to require time off or modified work in 2016, but the survey data suggest the actual number is over 170,000, and that more than 400,000 Alberta workers—roughly one in five—experienced at least one workplace injury in 2016.
“As sobering as the official statistics on workplace injuries are, our study revealed they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” says report co-author Bob Barnetson, a labour relations professor at Athabasca University. “The unfortunate reality is that despite recent improvements to provincial legislation, the current occupational health and safety system is failing to ensure Alberta’s workplaces are safe.”
The survey suggests that roughly half of employers in the province violate basic occupational health and safety (OHS) rules, and revealed that many workers are afraid to exercise their rights or don’t believe government action would be effective. One-third of workers who did report unsafe working conditions to the government said no inspector came to the workplace to investigate, an unsurprising finding given that just 2% of Alberta’s workplaces are inspected in any given year.
“The data suggest a breakdown in the Internal Responsibility System that is at the heart of the workplace health and safety system in the province,” argues co-author Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull. “This government seems to be serious about making Alberta’s workplaces safe, but to do that there needs to be a much higher level of workplace inspections, as well as meaningful consequences for violations that put workers at risk. As it stands now, there’s virtually no chance of an employer getting punished for an unsafe workplace, and both employers and workers seem to know it.”
The report concludes with 13 recommendations aimed at increasing inspection levels, putting in place meaningful and mandatory consequences for violations, and improving worker-focused education on workplace rights.
Parkland Institute is a non-partisan public policy research institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. Safer by Design: How Alberta Can Improve Workplace Safety is available for download on Parkland’s website.