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Safer by Design

How Alberta Can Improve Workplace Safety

Safer by Design

In late 2017, Alberta passed Bill 30, An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans. Bill 30 made significant changes to the legislation governing both occupational health and safety (OHS) and workers’ compensation, including introducing an expanded right for workers to refuse unsafe work; increasing protection for workers against employer retaliation for refusing unsafe work; and mandating joint health and safety committees in workplaces with 20 or more workers.

The government hopes these changes will reduce Alberta’s high level of workplace injury, which totaled some 44,543 reported disabling injuries in 2016. Unfortunately, research suggests that enacting additional rights and obligations does not, by itself, reduce injury rates. Other important factors include workers’ willingness to exercise those rights and employers’ willingness to comply with their OHS obligations.

To help better understand how workplace injury-prevention efforts actually work in Alberta, we undertook an online poll of 2,000 workers. It revealed:

 

1. Most workplace injuries are not reported

The survey data suggests there were approximately 170,700 disabling injuries in Alberta in 2016, of which 69.1% went unreported, and that approximately 408,000 Alberta workers—roughly one in five—experienced at least one work-related injury in 2016. These findings reveal that government data radically underestimates the true level of work-related injury, and that government and employer injury-prevention efforts are insufficient.

2. Most employers violate Alberta’s safety rules

The survey also suggests that only about half of Alberta employers were complying with the basic requirements of the OHS Code. Only 50% of respondents reported their workplace had developed written hazard assessments; only 45% reported that their employers regularly allowed them input into hazard-control strategies; and only 59% of respondents reported their employer regularly provided specific information about hazards to which the worker was exposed and how to control them.

3. Workers are afraid to exercise their safety rights

Between 10% and 23% of workers reported that exercising specific rights would have had a negative effect on their employment. Workers who were routinely exposed to a high number of hazards in their workplace reported levels of fear that were up to four times higher than average.

These results suggest that there is a fundamental problem with the Internal Responsibility System (IRS) in Alberta: workers are often unwilling to exercise their safety rights, both because of a fear of retaliation and an expectation that government intervention will not be effective. These concerns were borne out by the experiences of those who did report workplace hazards: a full third of workers who complained to the government about an unsafe workplace said no inspector came to their workplace in response, while 11% indicated their employers punished them for complaining.

Recommendations

Despite the legislative improvements created by Bill 30, significant operational changes are necessary to reduce the annual tally of occupational fatalities, injuries, and illnesses. Our 13 recommended changes fall into three categories:

Increasing inspection levels

1. Increase the number of government inspectors
2. Inspections should be targeted and proactive
3. Allow inspections by civil society groups

Introducing meaningful and mandatory consequences for violations

4. Orders must be public, tracked, and enforced
5. Penalties should be mandatory and escalating
6. Violators should be publicly shamed
7. Additional prosecutions should take place
8. Inspectors should stop ticketing workers
9. Retaliation should be prosecuted

Improving worker-focused safety education

10. OHS should be better integrated into the K-12 curriculum
11. Government should develop worker-focused OHS education
12. Government should fund independent OHS education for workers
13. Government should fund independent training for worker Joint Health and Safety Committee representatives

ISBN: 978-1-894949-59-0

Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull

Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull has been with the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre since 2006, developing and delivering workplace health and safety and workers’ rights education programming across the province. He has over 20 years of experience in popular education and social action theatre with and for marginalized populations. Prior to stepping into the role of executive director, he was responsible for the AWHC’s Work Plays Schools Program (for young workers) and the New Alberta Workers Program (for temporary foreign workers, immigrants and refugees). Recently he has worked with injured worker groups across the province to increase their capacity to participate in advocacy for policy change. Jared lives in Edmonton with his wife and two children.

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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) and co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016).

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