Near-record workplace deaths in Alberta

Inclusion of occupational disease spikes fatality rates
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2014

Fatalities at workplaces in Alberta hit a near record in 2013.

According to data released by the provincial government, 188 workers died last year as a result of the jobs they did. Those numbers have nearly doubled in comparison to previous years — a jump likely caused by the inclusion of occupational diseases in the province’s fatality rubric.

Of those 188 deaths, 99 could be linked to an occupational disease, according to data compiled by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). That means any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of the work performed, such as long-term exposure to carcinogens or other dangerous airborne particles.

That the figures are so high does not necessarily come as a surprise to Thomas Lukaszuk, who helms Alberta’s newly formed Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour.

“These are the numbers about which you and I cannot do anything today. It is damage that has happened in the past,” he said. “But these are the numbers that can teach you and me a lesson on what we need to do now so that the minister 20 or 30 years from now won’t be dealing with the same thing.”

Figures skewed: AFL

As they currently stand, the figures are skewed, according to Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). That’s because there are increasingly more deaths that should be officially considered occupational fatalities in the data — but they aren’t covered by the province’s definition.

“The only reason it’s not an all-time record is because the record is almost unbeatable,” he said, citing the 1914 Hillcrest mine explosion, otherwise known as Canada’s worst mining disaster, which killed 189 workers. That year holds the current record for workplace fatalities, at 221.

“For all intents and purposes, this actually really is the high-water mark for modern workplace fatalities in Alberta,” said McGowan. “Albertans and policymakers should see this as a warning bell. Something is going seriously wrong in Alberta.”

In reality, the numbers are likely much higher, he said. While the inclusion of some occupational diseases led to a spike in the number of deaths, the possibility exists that fatalities would be even higher had additional occupational diseases been worked into the rubric.

McGowan pointed to firefighters, whose high-risk, work-related cancers and diseases are now eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Had the data included other work-related cancers, in particular those that energy sector employees are at a high risk for, the numbers would have been higher.

Lukaszuk (who years ago was the minister in charge of occupational health and safety) echoed these concerns, but argued that we simply cannot know what we cannot know.

“There is also an irony in that number as well in that as our science gets better and our understanding of occupational diseases gets better, we accept occupational diseases, fatalities and medical conditions, which even last year we did not know about,” he said.

“So, as the number goes down, we accept medical conditions and we grow that number as well.”

In order to tackle this health and safety beast, Lukaszuk said he intends to work closely with health and safety officials and the province’s WCB — as well as similar bodies in other provinces and countries — to ensure best practices are applied.

The province will also ramp up its education and enforcement efforts.

“We have two new tools in our enforcement tool box. Those are administrative fines, which can be quite hefty, and also we can now ticket in the province of Alberta to reinforce how important this is. But, by far, education would be the preferred tool,” he said.

But that plan is a superficial one, according to McGowan.

“In many ways, it’s not rocket science. We need more inspectors, we need more tools for inspectors, we need better safety education and, frankly, we need a slower pace, especially when it comes to development in the oil sands,” he said, because that quick development often pushes safety to the backburner.

Another benefit is that making a more aggressive commitment to enforcement would have employers thinking twice about cutting health and safety corners.

By announcing months-long inspection blitzes in specific sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, the government is warning employers, said McGowan.

That means companies tend to clean up their act for that block of time — and it illustrates the need for followup surprise inspections, he said.

While the inclusion of certain occupational diseases and a pledge to focus on health and safety are steps in the right direction, that’s only “the tip of the iceberg,” said McGowan.

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