WCBs, lawmakers tackle rising death toll

Despite high cost of workplace injuries, many employers aren’t getting the message on safety

Allan Walker scratches his head when he sees people lined up for lottery tickets. While workers spend billions of dollars on lotteries, workplace health and safety gets nary a thought.

“We have a strange sense of probability theory. People think they’re not going to be the one in 200 who uses safety equipment inappropriately, but they are going to be the one in a million who wins something,” said Walker, executive director of the occupational health and safety division of Saskatchewan’s labour ministry.

And the average worker probably has more reason to be concerned, because there’s a disturbing trend in numbers from workers’ compensation boards.

In 1996 there were 805 workplace fatalities, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC). In 2002, the most recent year statistics are available, that number had risen to 934. Across the country provincial governments are springing into action to launch new initiatives and review safety rules in an effort to stem the tide.

“For 30 years we saw sort of a steady decrease in the time-loss injuries,” Walker said. “In the last few years, we’ve seen it inch up and go the wrong way.”

The increase is a concern as Saskatchewan reviews its occupational health and safety legislation. Under provincial law the legislation must be reviewed every five years but Walker said this review is particularly critical because of the rising injury rates.

It’s hard to pin down a cause for the increase, but Walker laid the blame on a number of issues. A shift from agriculture to industrial work, increased awareness of ergonomic and soft-tissue injuries and an aging workforce all have some role to play, he said.

“You jump off a truck when you’re 25, and you’re okay,” he said. “But you jump off a truck when you’re 45, and you sprain your ankle and you’re off work.”

It also could simply be an indication that employers are getting better at reporting accidents. But regardless of the cause, the numbers need to start heading in the other direction, Walker said.

As part of an effort to increase awareness, the province’s Workers’ Compensation Board launched a public relations campaign last year to highlight a number of workplaces with exemplary records. Through a series of newspaper ads, firms were lauded for safe practices. Regina-based USF Water Group was one of the organizations that made the list.

Gerald Mushka, environmental health and safety manager for USF Water Group, said employees have embraced the idea of a safety culture at the company’s head office that employs 80 manufacturing and 120 office staff.

“You can set up all the policies and all the discipline procedures to make sure people are following safe work procedures,” said Mushka. “But those things historically have not had a lot of effect on incident rates.”

What makes the program at USF successful is the fact that health and safety is constantly put in front of staff. When changes are made to the work environment, employees are given a say in how their workstations are set up. Once a month a safety package is sent out and employees meet with their supervisors to talk about what’s in the package.

“They may talk about an incident that occurred last month, or fire extinguisher use or it may be something outside of work, like safe driving or Christmas tree light safety,” he said. “I’m a more safety conscious person than I was 10 years ago. But to develop that attitude, that when you go home at night and you take out your skill saw and you put your safety glasses on and make sure you’re not wearing cutoffs, of thinking about safety all the time, that takes a lot of time and effort.”

One of the more creative initiatives the company is using is a health and safety bingo. Every day a bingo number is given out and employees keep track of the numbers and can win a variety of prizes. If there is a lost-time accident, the game board is erased and employees have to start over again. Prizes range from a free lunch or a gift certificate, up to a trip to Edmonton to take in an NHL hockey game.

“It’s in the experimental stages,” he said. “We’re always a little cautious about incentive programs because apparently they can sort of work to your disadvantage as well, so we’re treading cautiously a bit there.”

He said health and safety prevention is a pretty easy sell to management simply because of the cost of an accident. Depending on a company’s profit margin, an organization might have to make a $100,000 sale just to cover the cost of a $10,000 accident.

That’s something Chris Bentley, Ontario’s Labour Minister, is struggling with — why some companies don’t care about health and safety despite the enormous financial burden of injuries.

Bentley has launched a number of health and safety action groups to immediately address problems in three areas of concern in Ontario — the construction, health-care and manufacturing sectors.

“Construction fatalities increased 50 per cent in Ontario in 2003. There were 30 construction deaths last year, the highest level in more than a decade. Across all sectors almost 100,000 people suffered injuries severe enough to force them to miss time at work. Another 185,000 were injured but remained on the job,” said Bentley.

He said he’s pleased with the federal government’s recent decision to phase out the ability of employers to deduct health and safety fines as business expenses because it would give the fines a bit more teeth and give employers one more reason to put health and safety at the top of the agenda.

But even if employers don’t care one iota about safety, don’t care about the health of staff and are only concerned about making as much money as possible, they should look at the fact that the average workplace accident ends up costing an employer about $48,000, said Bentley.

But Rob Hilliard, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said employers are getting away with injuring workers because it simply doesn’t pay to prevent injury, particularly when it comes to occupational disease.

“What Ontario’s minister said is somewhat true,” said Hilliard. “But the sad truth is that the way enterprise is carried on in the world, it does pay to injure workers. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, they’re better of injuring workers in many cases.”

That’s because many occupational diseases are not compensated. Some diseases may have a 15-, 20- or 30-year latency period and the chances of an employer ever having to pay for that is almost nil, he said.

“If that means you have to invest in a state-of-the-art ventilation system in all of your infrastructure at the cost of a few million dollars, versus running the risk of getting tapped on the shoulder for $48,000 in 20 years’ time, it pays to actually injure your workers,” said Hilliard.

Manitoba is currently reviewing its workers’ compensation legislation, with a focus on benefits. A task force has been set up that includes representatives from business, labour and the public. Hilliard expects the task force to be tumultuous, despite a rather positive health and safety climate in Manitoba.

There is a heightened awareness about workplace safety and health in Manitoba because of a few high-profile fatal accidents, including a few involving teenagers who were killed before they had been taught how to do the job.

“A couple of mothers of the killed teenagers took this on as a cause,” said Hilliard. “And it’s pretty hard to argue with a mother who’s lost a child. When they come out and start calling for changes and for increased protections, it’s pretty hard to stand up in front of them. That’s a pretty powerful advocate for change.”

When it comes to the workers’ compensation review, Hilliard wants to see a “reverse presumption” rule when it comes to occupational disease, similar to what firefighters in many jurisdictions currently have.

“If a firefighter comes down with brain cancer, it is presumed to be work-related unless the contrary can shown,” he said. He wants to see that type of thinking applied to other occupations that have a higher risk of disease.

“This is going to scare the pants off employers, because the true extent of occupational disease isn’t being compensated now,” he said.

If that happens it truly won’t pay to ignore occupational disease hazards and employers will invest the money up front to limit exposure to toxins in the workplace, he said.

“In that case, you should invest that million dollars to provide a better ventilation system if the true cost of occupational disease is going to be borne by employers,” he said.

Hilliard said he wishes employers would stop looking at health and safety numbers as statistics, and arguing on those statistics.

“I had the very emotional experience of twice having to talk to new widows of people I knew underground who were killed (in mining accidents),” he said. “You don’t ever think about workplace safety and health or workers’ compensation issues the same if you do that. You put real human emotions and faces to this stuff and they’re not statistics that employers argue about costs over anymore. They’re real people and there’s a lot of pain.”

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