Near-record workplace deaths in Alberta

Inclusion of occupational disease spikes fatalities

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

According to data released from the provincial government, 188 workers died last year as a result of the jobs they do. The numbers have nearly doubled compared to previous years — a jump likely caused by the inclusion of occupational diseases to 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 were so high did 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," Lukaszuk 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."

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 officially be 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," McGowan said, citing the 1914 Hillcrest mine explosion, otherwise known as Canada’s worst mine 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 watermark for modern workplace fatalities in Alberta," McGowan continued. "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, there exists the possibility that, had even more occupational diseases been worked into the rubric, fatalities would be even higher.

He pointed to firefighters, whose high-risk work-related cancers and disease 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 also enjoyed a stint as 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 intends to work closely with health and safety officials and the province’s WCB, as well as with 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 added, because that quick development often pushes safety to the backburner.

As well, 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, McGowan said the government is warning employers. That means companies tend to clean up their act for that block of time — and illustrates the need for follow-up 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, McGowan called it only "the tip of the iceberg."

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