New government efforts to reduce injuries

Last month, one construction worker died in Alberta and two others were injured after a 12-metre fall at a native high school work site. They were installing the roof of the school’s gymnasium. That same day, an industrial accident left one worker dead and another in critical condition after entering the tank of a semi-tanker trunk and inhaling residual fumes of Diethanolamine — a substance used in oil drilling.

Two years ago, a 17-year-old died after becoming entangled in a conveyor belt while cleaning at a sawmill northwest of Edmonton. Earlier that year, a man was crushed after a five-metre-high stack of fibreboard collapsed on top of him. The firm was fined $144,000, a dramatic increase from the $10,000 to $40,000 penalty normally imposed.

It was time to take action, says Clint Dunford, Alberta’s Human Resources and Employment Minister. Dunford remembers when he used to boast about the province’s lost-time claims rate. In 2000, Alberta’s rate was at 3.4 workdays missed per 100 person-years worked, a number he was proud of until the wake-up call.

“The construction owners association of Alberta asked for a meeting. I went there innocent as a lamb thinking we would hear good things about what we were doing. They looked me in the eye and said, ‘We want you to know that Alberta is one of the most dangerous jurisdictions that we operate in,’” Dunford recalls.

Realizing the rate of 3.4 was too high, the minister decided to set a more aggressive target, proposing a strategy to reduce provincial workplace injuries to 2.0 by 2004.

“That would mean 15,000 (fewer) Alberta workers would not experience a lost time claim.”

The minister established a working group to create a joint industry and government strategy addressing workplace safety. Dunford says it’s important to get buy-in from the province’s major stakeholders because things have to start from the top down.

“If a CEO is not committed to safety, it’s not going to happen. We’re arranging for Ralph Klein to make a major speech about 2.0 at one of our major events.”

Alberta has more than 30 recommendations to increase awareness of workplace safety and reduce injury including increasing fines and penalties for individuals and organizations. The average fine has increased substantially, says Dunford.

“We also provide jail terms, but none have been granted nor have we asked for any.” There will be an increase in labour ministry staff, so more safety officers will perform inspections, he says, and Alberta already has a full-time prosecutor dedicated to workplace health and safety issues.

Some incentives to promote workplace safety include public reporting of the best and worst companies for safety performance, public awards for innovative safety initiatives and linking WCB premium rates to participation in health and safety programs. On the education side, new employers will receive health and safety orientation packages as will small- to medium-sized businesses.

“In 2004, if we’re still stuck at 3.4, I’ll consider that a failure,” he says.

Focus on younger workers

Ontario is also on a workplace safety mission this summer, targeting young students —15 to 24 years old — as they take on summer jobs. Although, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) makes year-round efforts to reduce workplace injuries, it’s taking on a special project this year.

“Young workers are a priority to us. We want to prepare them, at the same time we want to encourage employers to make an extra effort to protect young workers,” says Marianne Levitsky, WSIB best practices and prevention director.

More than 17,000 young workers were injured in Ontario, last year. Unfortunately, WSIB’s campaign came too late for James Wright from Ottawa. He plunged down five storeys after a ladder broke at work. He broke his back and is now a paraplegic (see poster). Wright is one of the people featured in the ad campaign organized by Elizabeth Turnbull, WSIB director of marketing and communications.

“We focused on real stories, on people who have been directly impacted by workplace accident and illness,” she says.

Last month, WSIB launched the radio campaign, playing ads on some of Toronto’s urban stations. They have also placed posters on the subway with a tear-off pad listing workers’ rights. Other people featured in the campaign include a young woman electrocuted after the crane she was working on touched energy wires. She suffered severe neurological problems. Also, a young man shares the story of his brother, who was killed while working at a local skating arena. He died from an explosion.

“It’s really hard to break through to this generation, they feel they’re invincible. Our market research has shown that these campaigns have had an impact on raising the awareness of youth and employers,” Turnbull says.

The main focus of the campaign is to change attitudes, she says.

The WSIB offers a few pointers for employers hiring summer students. Firstly, provide adequate training, this may include showing them how to do their job more than once.

“Employers need to take special care with young workers because of their inexperience,” Levitsky says. “They don’t have the judgement an adult might have to determine what is safe.”

Secondly, encourage them to ask questions. Sometimes, young people want to please the boss and might not ask a lot of questions, she says. Lastly, ensure safe work practices. It’s a joint message and both parties need to be involved, says Levitsky.

Prevention through research

While Alberta and Ontario have carved out specific plans of action, the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) is pushing for dissemination of health and safety research. Late last year, the AWCBC held its first “Public Forum on Knowledge Transfer,” for workplace health and safety.

“There are many questions to which the answers and the solutions are unclear or unknown. Good research is needed and it makes the intervention effective,” says Brenda Croucher, AWCBC executive director. “It’s also important that the research be put into a practical format so it can be used by (employers) to reduce workplace injury.”

The forum brought together experts from across North America to explore how the transfer of research and best practices can impact the workplace. More than 300 corporate case studies were presented, showing how knowledge transfer can be applied in the workplace.

“They had research findings that helped them move the information into a practical format, and get it into the workplaces. (Now) that’s transferring knowledge,” Croucher says.

One study involved a Quebec government health and safety commission that utilized research to implement safe work methods and ensure compliance with safety requirements in industrial facilities — all within its inspection-prevention plan. The commission focused on the usage of powder paints. The fine powders can cause explosions and other health hazards.

First, the commission produced its own survey of the techniques used so it could define the best inspection methods. The research allowed the commission to determine the safe measurement of the toxin in the air.

Then training was provided for all of the inspectors, informing them of the operation of the systems and the safety requirements. This all took place over a two-year period and more than 95 per cent of the changes have been implemented.

AWCBC plans to host the knowledge transfer forums every two years.

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