(Canadian OH&S News) — The Alberta public has been receiving an inaccurate snapshot of occupational injuries and fatalities in the province through news media, according to a new study from the Parkland Institute, a public-policy research centre at the University of Alberta.
Published on April 27, Buried and Forgotten: Newspaper Coverage of Workplace Injury and Death in Alberta examined 162 news articles about Alberta workplace incidents dated from 2009 to 2014 and compared them to official statistics from the province’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). Report co-authors Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, both labour-relations professors at Athabasca University, also interviewed reporters to understand their journalistic methods and habits.
Among the report’s findings:
— While nearly 78 per cent of news reports focused on incidents resulting in fatalities, more than 99 per cent of total incidents resulted only in injuries;
— Incidents in the construction, mining and oil sectors dominated news reports, although healthcare, retail, manufacturing and government saw far more incidents than mining and oil did;
— Traumatic injuries and disorders made up 58 per cent of media reports, but less than 18 per cent of the official stats; and
— Although women suffer more than one-third of occupational injuries, almost 92 per cent of the news stories were about male injuries.
“We get this sense that injury and fatalities are something that is both severe and rare,” Foster told COHSN about the report’s findings. “There’s no understanding of the causal chain, what leads to these kinds of incidences.”
Foster added that occupational disease is virtually invisible in Alberta media reports about workplace health and safety. “So we just kind of get this distorted sense of how severe the problem is and who it affects,” he said.
“We wanted to write up these results and talk about them. What else could be done to give the public a clear picture about health and safety in the province?”
Ben Dille, a spokesperson with the WCB, agreed that the public needed a more accurate picture of the situation.
“One thing that certainly resonates is that there’s a contention there that public awareness of health and safety and raising it is a good thing, which certainly is a sentiment that we echo as well,” said Dille.
Foster noted that he did not believe reporters were deliberately distorting information, saying that “the journalistic mindset, where more dramatic stories obviously are more newsworthy,” was more to blame.
“But also, it’s an issue of lack of resources,” he added. “Newsrooms these days just don’t have enough reporters and resources to be able to track down every story, so they fall back to a particular set of templates that are familiar to them, because they’re easier and quicker to write.
“The media may not be the most effective mechanism for informing the public about the nature of health and safety.”
Buried and Forgotten also includes 10 recommendations, six for the Alberta Ministry of Labour, two for the WCB and two for both. The recommendations deal mainly with providing regular updates and reports on investigations, claims and prosecutions.
“Some of the recommendations are about things that we do already,” said Dille, citing the provision of data more specific than lost-time-claim rates as an example. “In a lot of our reporting, including our annual report, we actually focus quite a bit of attention on things like the disabling-injury rate, which can sometimes be a better indicator.”
Foster noted that the Alberta public needed more awareness of the commonness of workplace injury and the reasons behind it, in order to spark change.
“The public doesn’t have a sense of the breadth and the depth of workplace injury in the province,” he said. “And if the public doesn’t see it as an issue, they don’t place pressure on the government and employers to do something about it.”
Buried and Forgotten is available online at https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/parklandinstitute/pages/357/attachments/original/1461602861/buriedandforgotten.pdf?1461602861.