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Alberta misrepresenting work injuries: report

(Canadian OH&S News)


(Canadian OH&S News)

A research institute at the University of Alberta is charging that the provincial government is misrepresenting the total number of annual workplace injuries, a claim the province categorically dismisses.

On Sept. 26, the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute released the Making It Home: Alberta Workplace Injuries and the Union Safety Dividend fact sheet, which contended that while the government only reports injuries that resulted in lost or modified work (some 53,000 of these disabling injuries in 2009), the total number of annual injuries is nearly ten times that number (500,000).

“Talking about only 50,000 injuries misleads Albertans about the true level of injury in Alberta workforces by a factor of 10,” said Bob Barnetson, the author of the report and an associate professor at Athabasca University. “Talking about 50,000 injuries also suggests that Alberta’s OHS system is much more effective than it actually is.”

To arrive at the 500,000 figure, Barnetson’s 2012 source paper, The Validity of Alberta’s Safety Statistics (http://www.justlabour.yorku.ca/volume19/pdfs/01_barnetson_press.pdf), claimed that there were 95,854 medical aid-only claims (an injury reported to and accepted by the workers’ compensation board (WCB) that required medical intervention); an estimated 22,000 injuries for industries not covered by the WCB; more than 114,000 unreported injuries (based on estimations that 40 per cent of injuries eligible for WCB compensation go unreported); and more than 214,000 non-reportable injuries (injuries that do not have to be reported to the WCB).

Combining the approximately 53,000 reported and the 447,000 “unreported” brings the number to about 500,000.

Brookes Merritt, a spokesperson for the Occupational Health & Safety division of Alberta Human Services (AHS), said that AHS and the provincial WCB dispute the numbers. “WCB has confirmed for me that the numbers in the fact sheet are not correct, and not from the WCB,” Merritt said. “They are not aware of where the medical aid-only claim number comes from or how it was determined.”

Merritt added that as of August, there were 2,345,200 workers in Alberta. “There is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim that 20 per cent of them have been injured on the worksite,” he said. “The estimates published by Parkland are statistically unfounded.”

Interestingly, the source paper acknowledged that there is “no way to accurately estimate” the number of minor injuries that did not trigger a WCB claim. It went on to say that “discussion among practitioners suggests accounting for disease and minor injuries would push the number close to 500,000 injuries per year, but for the purpose of this analysis, this estimate will be ignored. Consequently, this analysis suggests defining workplace injuries as LTCs [lost-time claims] under-reports workplace injury by a factor of at least 10. And defining them as DIs [disabling injuries] under-reports injuries by a factor of at least 5.4.”

The report also noted that Alberta is the only Canadian jurisdiction where joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) are not mandatory for any size of workplace, adding that provincial unionized workers are much more likely to have access to a JHSC because this is often required by a collective agreement.

This prompted Alberta NDP labour critic Rachel Notley to call on the government to mandate JHSCs for all workplaces with ten or more employees.

But Merritt said that AHS doesn’t believe that requiring businesses to set up JHSCs would necessarily reduce workplace injuries. “Literature shows joint workplace health and safety committees with strong management commitment are effective, but there is little evidence that legislating management and workers to meet and talk about health and safety is effective,” he said. “Positive safety outcomes are more likely to be associated with voluntary efforts where parties are vested, and we encourage those.”

The Making It Home report can be read at http://parklandinstitute.ca/research/summary/making_it_home.


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6 Comments » for Alberta misrepresenting work injuries: report
  1. Bob Barnetson says:

    Well, the WCB provided the numbers to me in 2010 after I made a Freedom of Information request and the excel files represent a dump from the WCB’s own database.

    If the government has contemporary numbers medical-aid only claims (my data is all from 2009) and well as other forms of injury (that address the under-reporting and non-reportable issues) I think everyone would love to see them!

    Since the government never comes forward with anything other than the disabling injury claims data, that kind of proves the point of the fact sheet–that the government under-reports injuries.

  2. Curtis Forbes says:

    What is the value of tracking minor injuries that do not need to be reported? Is it relevant how many carpenters got a wood sliver or how many sheet metal workers suffered a minor cut to their finger?

    The fact is, even the injuries that are reported are often symptoms of a pre-existing condition rather than the result of poor safety practices. Many ‘accidents’ are not really accidents because they are just a progressive condition (like arthritis) that is aggravated from normal work activities. The general public does not appreciate how often a workers’ compensation claim has nothing to do with safety and prevention and far more to do with the health of the worker.

    Statistics can be very misleading. For example, the majority of work-related fatalities are MVA’s and they occur in circumstances that are the same as the those MVA”s where no one is in the course of their employment. Slippery roads and drunk drivers who cross the centre line are a risk to everyone whether they are in the course of their employment or not. In some years, WCB fatalities increase because a harsh winter produced poor road conditions which in turn caused more MVA’s. Employers didn’t suddenly become unsafe, the weather was the only factor.

    If WCB was to separately record the sudden events that lead to an injury (such as slips, trips and falls), the accident rate would actually appear quite low. This is because employers have done a lot of work over the passed 20 years to improve safety so many of the accidents they are seeing are simply a reflection of an aging workforce and a younger generation often not physically prepared for labour intensive work. The WCB could do more to improve the metrics they publish by providing more detail in the information they capture.

    • Teresa Roper says:

      I agree, as owner of a claims management company, I have represented both workers and employers for a total of almost 40 years. Almost 50 percent of modified work incidencts are the result of previous injuries. What you do not mention is how many accident happen in Alberta because of unions. Unions routinely send out worker to companies who are not fit to do the job that they are doing. On one construction site recently, a callout for 30 workers for labourer resulted in four workers over 65. Two were refused and a grievances was filed, both workers returned to the jobsite. Within two weeks, all four workers were on modified work because of strain/sprain injuries. I think if you want to use statistics that include everything – you should be able to enforce pre-employment medicals, of course with unions – this is not possible.

  3. Kyla Sentes says:

    Well Curtis, you represent precisely the type of ‘blame the victim’ attitude which has prevailed throughout the WCB’s history. In fact, your logic is precisely the same one that’s been used in the WCB’s repeated attempts to refuse to cover lung cancer as a result of abestos exposure simply because it ‘might have had to do with something else during one’s life course.’ The fact is, many of the ‘injuries’ are actually diseases which are not included because they do not immediately result in loss of work. It is precisely through the manipulation of reportage and lobbying to have injuries descheduled that the WCB has been successful in ensuring that workers have zero protection should injuries/illnesses present in later years. That’s why it IS important that minor injuries be reported–because government and industry have lobbied endlessly to set out what is considered ‘minor’ and what isn’t.

    I’m stunned by the statement that the younger generation are “often not physically prepared for labour intensive work” and as a result, are somehow accident-prone. Anyone who’s done even a modicum of research into workplace safety practices knows that this model was disproven heartily decades ago. It is not up to workers to ‘work out’ and ‘toughen up’ for a position, it’s up to employers to ensure the conditions exist where they are not put at risk. There are dozens of cases (notably amongst car manufacturers) where they’ve investigated workplaces with high levels of injuries chocked up to ‘poor physical health’ where it’s been clearly revealed that it was, in fact, instiutionalized unsafe practices which were leading to injury.

  4. David Reid says:

    Having worked in occupational rehab and as a WCB administrator for almost 30 years, I can tell you that there are likely many more workplace injuries that are unreported, compared to those which are formally reported to the WCB. However, do the numbers really matter as long as workers are getting home safely? WCB claims auditors do a very detailed job of reviewing all injuries, including first-aid-only circumstances where someone just needs a bandaid and some polysporin. The best practice is for first-aid-only circumstances to be simply noted in a record log with name and date and quick note. Can you imagine how many paper cuts there are among financial institutions, law firms and engineering companies combined, all whom are WCB-exempt industries in Alberta? The numbers would be massive, but again, why does it matter as long as the worker made it home safely.

    Folks who believe that every single injury, including paper cuts and minor strains, need to be formally reported to the WCB, should have a look at what happens to organizations that are mandated to have Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC). Canada Post is a good example of how a union and a management system has resulted in a bureaucratic occupational injury claims processes to a level which defies common sense and results in extremely unproductive environment for managing minor-injury circumstances. My experience with Canada Post tells me that dwelling on every single minor injury, and completing volumes of paperwork involving detailed safety investigations, and involving a JHSC for every single minor-injury circumstance is a pure waste of human effort and productivity. As an example, a wasp bite or sting would most often result in a frozen workplace, full investigation, and three days off work for a postal worker, where common sense would dictate that only minor first-aid treatment is needed, with the employee resuming full work immediately after the incident.

    Hopefully, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety and WCB Alberta, do not implement changes that waste time, effort and productivity, which could result in ridiculous and bureaucratic processes for business and labour to safely thrive. Take a look at WSIB in Ontario with their massive unfunded liabilities and extremely ineffective disability management processes have resulted in what amounts to a significant tax on business of at least three to five times the average premium rates as compared to Alberta average premium rates. The big difference is not workers arriving home safely, but how crazy you want to go with levels of administration and support for injuries that are really non issues amoungst other bureaucratic processes instilled in a pro-union province!

    • Trish says:

      The issue is work injury that leads to time off work, and many of those are not recorded or are denied by WCB. WCB Alberta is a far cry from being a fair organization when it comes to assisting injured workers. Your comment about employer premiums sums it up completely – clearly, it should be relabelled to get rid of the problem quickly, so we don’t have to help injured workers. I have heard this story over and over again. Not something to be proud of!

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