Head west, more injuries: Study

Reasons for provincial differences unknown

A new study reveals work injury rates are much higher in Western Canada, even when industry is controlled for.

Workers in British Columbia have a 49 per cent higher risk of injury than workers in Ontario, according to a new study from Institute of Work and Health (IWH).

Workers in Saskatchewan had 27 per cent higher risk compared to Ontario, and in Alberta the risk was 28 per cent higher. The injury risk in Manitoba and Quebec were comparable to Ontario. Workers in Atlantic Canada were found to have a slightly lower risk than those in Ontario, by eight per cent.

While the research looks at the number of injuries, it doesn’t answer the question of why these regional differences are so vast.

“We can only speculate. This study basically says there are differences and gives us no information to why those differences are,” said IWH scientist Curtis Breslin, the lead researcher for the report.

The study, which has been submitted to the scientific journal Annals of Epidemiology but has not yet been published, only looked at acute injuries, not repetitive strain injuries. A second study is being done to look at such ergonomic injuries, said Breslin.

The report is based on data from the 2003 and 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey, done by Statistics Canada. The paper’s researchers looked at 89,541 Canadians ages 15 to 75 years who had worked in the past year.

The survey asks respondents if they had been injured at work in the past 12 months with an impairment serious enough to limit their normal activities, according to the IWH.

“This potentially sets up future research to look at possible explanations. One of the obvious places to look is differences in legislation and regulation, differences in enforcement, differences in the characteristics of the industries,” said Breslin. “Even though we controlled for industries to some degree, there could be other more subtle things going on with provincial differences in basically the type of work people do in the industries.”

One of the factors could be firm size, said Breslin, adding the average firm size in Ontario tends to be larger than the average firm size in some other provinces, such as some of the western provinces.

“Since we know small businesses tend to have higher injury rates, it could be something like that,” he said, adding there was nothing specific in the current study to point to firm size as a culprit.

One of the barriers to looking at possible explanations for regional discrepancies is the different ways the provinces do their enforcement and what data they report on enforcement, said Breslin.

“I think there’s a lot of focus on workplace-specific interventions and that it does look like there are factors operating at the provincial level that people need to be more aware of and that this is a potential way of kind of monitoring those broad-based interventions,” he said.

WorkSafeBC says there may be other factors that account for the difference in injuries.

“I understand that they have controlled for industry type which is a key difference between the western provinces and Ontario,” said Alexandra Skinner-Reynolds, a spokesperson for WorkSafeBC, in an email. “Another key difference from my perspective is the amount of the workforce covered by the provincial workers’ compensation system.”

WorkSafeBC pointed to statistics on the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) website that detail the percentage of the workforce covered.

Based on 2010 statistics from the association, Ontario covers 71.28 per cent, Manitoba covers 73.45 per cent, Saskatchewan covers 74.52 per cent, Alberta covers 85.52 per cent, Quebec covers 93.3 per cent and British Columbia covers 94.42 per cent of its workforce.

An employer’s perspective

Freybe Gourmet Foods, based in Langley, B,C., is an example of a western employer that worked to improve a less than stellar safety record.

Seven years ago, WorkSafeBC pointed out that the company’s performance was substandard to the industry, said owner Sven Freybe.

“(WorkSafeBC) had threatened us with fines if we weren’t doing certain training about lockout procedures and having certain procedures in place and that kind of woke us up at that point in time,” he said.

It hired a safety manager and attacked issues with a team-based approach. Everybody in the organization was part of a team and had specific goals for short-term challenges around behaviour, said Freybe.

It held events like safety days and a safety week where it emphasized educational topics, but tried to make the topic fun and engaging.

“I do firmly believe that culture is created by a whole series of very small events that over a period of time end up shaping the culture of the organization,” he said. “So we will continue to try to use elements of fun and humour and brevity around topics such as safety, not to mock it, but sort of realize that people listen more and engage more when things are put in a bit of a humourous way.”

The company has its share of challenges, said Freybe.

The company’s average tenure is about 15 years employment and the average age of its employees upwards of 45, he said.

But management at the manufacturing company is working to improve its safety record despite those challenges and others.

Since its warnings from WorkSafeBC, the company has managed to improve its return to work times and get its premiums cut by two-thirds by focusing on building safety into the culture of the workplace.

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