Number of workplace fatalities rises in Alberta

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by Richard Gilbert

Barrie Harrison, communications officer with the Alberta Ministry of Employment, said that 20 of the 47 workplace fatalities were in the construction industry.

Health and Safety

The Alberta government claims that workplace injuries are on the decline, despite statistics showing workplace fatalities are on the rise.

“Everyone knows that accident and fatality rates go up during an economic boom. The last time we had similar rates of fatalities and injuries in Alberta was in the early 1990’s, during the last oil boom,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

“As the economy heats up employers start throwing less experienced workers into dangerous work situations, often without the necessary safety training. The results are as tragic as they are predictable.”

The Alberta Ministry of Employment and Immigration reported on last week that there were 154 occupational fatalities in 2007.

These fatalities are broken down into three categories; 44 were motor vehicle incidents, 47 were workplace incidents and 63 were occupational disease deaths.

All of these fatalities were work related.

“On one hand, we’re making great gains when it comes to reducing workplace injuries,” said Hector Goudreau, minister of employment and immigration.

“On the other, there are still far too many workers in Alberta getting killed on the job. Quite frankly, it’s unacceptable and we need to step up our collaborative efforts with industry, labour, safety associations and workers.”

The fatality rate in 2007 jumped by 24 per cent over 2006 levels, when there were 124 fatalities.

Barrie Harrison, communications officer with the Alberta Ministry of Employment, said that 20 of the 47 workplace fatalities were in the construction industry.

The number of construction fatalities involving motor vehicle incidents and occupational diseases was not available.

McGowan argued that the government is not releasing and is in fact distorting the workplace safety statistics.

“The government won’t release the full statistical breakdown. In other places, they use these statistics to increase safety. In Alberta, the government uses the statistics to deflect blame,” he said.

“Instead of looking at the numbers and using them as a tool to identify areas for more aggressive action, they are using the statistics to paper over the problem.”

For example, statistics are available for the provincial lost-time claim rate for 2007, which was 2.12 per 100 person years, down from 2.35 in 2006. The construction sector had a lost-time claim rate of 2.32 in 2007, which is also down from 2.50 in 2006.

A problem with this statistical measure is that it does not include claims in which employees have their work modified to accommodate their injuries. This measure distorts the amount of lost-time due to injury because it enables workers to remain in the workplace and not take any time away from work.

“Ignore lost time rates, because these numbers don’t even come from the provincial government. These numbers are generated by the WCB for the purposes of calculating premiums,” explained McGowan.

“This number has a huge affect on what employers pay, so there is a huge incentive to keep rates down. “

The disabling injury rate is a broader and more accurate measure than the lost-time claim rate, because it includes work modified to accommodate injuries.

The disabling injury rate was 3.88 in 2007, down from 4.14 in 2006. The construction industry had the second highest rate of disabling injuries with 5.05 in 2007.

The government uses these statistics to argue that injuries are on the decline and the provincial government is improving safety in the workplace.

The government also argues that even though fatalities are up, the numbers are consistent with figures over the past 10 years.

McGowan again disagreed.

He said fatality rates in Alberta are not consistent with 10 years ago, but actually tend to follow the cycles of economic growth and decline.

“Employers feel comfortable cutting corners, because the government is not sending the message that employers will pay a price if they ignore health and safety rules,” said McGowan. “The government in Alberta has a lax approach to monitoring and enforcement.”

He said the reality of this situation should push the government to increase enforcement and inspection. McGowan added that the government has done nothing and the province is now seeing the results.

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