Workplace deaths defy downturn
Job-related fatalities rise 15 per cent in slow economy
As the provincial economy geared down last year, the number of Albertans who died on the job still went up, with workplace fatalities jumping 15 per cent.
New Alberta government figures show 144 people died in 2016 in work site incidents, because of occupational-related diseases or in motor-vehicle crashes connected to their job.
Occupational diseases, such as those tied to exposure to asbestos fibres, continue to be the leading cause of work-related deaths and propelled the overall numbers higher.
In total, 77 Albertans died due to occupational-related diseases such as mesothelioma, including a 43-year-old gravel truck driver with silicosis and lung cancer, and a 62-year-old services worker killed by lung cancer related to second-hand smoke.
Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann said the legacy of asbestos continues to “wreak havoc” among older workers dealing with medical complications tied to its exposure decades ago.
But he also thinks the province lacks a serious commitment to safety and enforcement.
“It’s very easy to be complacent around these issues because everyone feels they’re doing what they can do when, in fact, virtually every injury incident is preventable,” says Swann.
“We’ve got a culture that doesn’t really reinforce safety first.”
Alberta Labour Department figures show 29 employees died in traffic accidents last year, while 38 were killed in work site incidents. (Both figures were up from the prior year).
Eight work site deaths were tied to employees falling from roofs, trailers or scaffolding. Another four deaths occurred during explosions, including one at Nexen Energy’s oilsands upgrader in January 2016 in which two men—David Williams and Drew Foster — were killed.
Safety officials say the overall number of workplace deaths often mirrors economic activity in the province due to busier roads and work sites.
Fatalities jumped to 188 during the height of the boom in 2013 — the worst year since the 1914 Hillcrest mine disaster — but fell to 125 two years ago as the province went into recession.
Last year bucked that trend, with 144 fatalities accepted by the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB).
“There’s no real explanation why they’re a bit higher than the previous year,” says Trent Bancarz, a spokesman for Alberta Labour.
“I don’t know if there’s a tie-in to the economy ... but when I look into fatality numbers over the years, it’s pretty common to see fluctuations,” adds Ben Dille with WCB.
Among the province’s various industries, the construction sector continued to see the highest number of deaths, with 51 reported last year by WCB, up from 42 in 2015.
Twenty-five workers died in the transportation sector last year, and 19 in manufacturing.
Ryan Davis of the Alberta Construction Safety Association said his sector is, by far, the largest employer group tracked by the province. It also covers some occupations that are inherently more dangerous.
Many deaths reported in the construction trades — 32 last year — were tied to occupational diseases, with the vast majority connected to asbestos.
“Because the exposure in the 1970s and 1980s are now taking hold and tragically killing these people, that number has increased,” Davis says.
“I would expect these numbers will continue to increase for the next probably 10 years or so, and then they’ll start to decline.”
Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, says occupational diseases tend to have a long latency period, and there is more acceptance today of their claims being work-related.
“(But) there’s vast underreporting of occupational diseases because of that long latency period,” he adds.
In an attempt to reduce workplace fatalities and injuries, the province has been ramping up enforcement and inspections.
Provincial figures show the number of occupational health and safety inspections rose by more than a third in the last fiscal year to 8,648.
The government has also been targeting certain sectors that tend to have higher rates of problems.
Aside from issuing stop-work orders to employers with issues, the department has a number of other enforcement tools at its disposal. Employers that are repeat offenders or with more serious violations can be given an administrative penalty or be prosecuted.
Provincial figures show there were 18 prosecutions last year, up from 11 in 2015.
However, the number of tickets issued to workers and employers for an array of work site violations fell 10 per cent last year.
These on-the-spot tickets, with fines of between $100 to $500 per violation, can be issued for matters such as failing to wear fall prevention or failing to keep a work site free of slip hazards.
Swann says he hasn’t seen any evidence the NDP government has significantly improved Alberta’s safety culture or enhanced the rules to crack down on problems since it took power two years ago.
“The numbers of enforcement (prosecutions) speak for themselves. It’s a pretty small rate,” he says.
Dille of the WCB noted that while fatality numbers fluctuate yearly, the rate of employees who’ve missed time on the job due to an injury, or have returned to modified work, has fallen steadily over the past 15 years.
I don’t know if there’s a tie into the economy ... but when I look into fatality numbers over the years, it’s pretty common to see fluctuations.
On the policy front, the province has committed to look at all of Alberta’s labour laws and is now reviewing employment standards and the labour relations code.
“The next area would be occupational health and safety following these reviews,” says Matt Dykstra, spokesman for Labour Minister Christina Gray.
With Alberta’s economy expected to start growing this year and employment projected to rebound, there’s concern the number of fatalities could increase without a concerted focus on prevention.
The head of Enform Canada, the safety association for the upstream oil and gas industry, is informing companies of the possible risks as new oilpatch employees are hired.
“When industry activity picks up significantly, guess what, so do incident rates and injury rates, and some of those lead to fatalities,” says Enform CEO Cameron McGillivray.
“So that’s one of our focuses at the moment.”