The Hamilton Spectator

Paid leave has a role in health, safety


Canada’s workplace health and safety progress has stalled. The reason may surprise you.

The workplace death in Burlington just days ago highlights the need for improved efforts to prevent employment-related accidents. Across Ontario, the Workplace Safety Insurance Board is reporting another tragic increase in annual, work-related, traumatic fatalities last year.

Sunday, April 28, is the National Day of Mourning. The occasion marks efforts to prevent workplace-related injury and promote the right to a safe and healthy work environmen­t.

Worldwide, the United Nations Internatio­nal Labour Organizati­on’s (ILO) 2023 safety report estimates that 2.6 million workers died from work-related injuries. As well, 395 million experience­d work-related injuries. That was before the pandemic emergency and represents a step backwards compared to the year 2000.

“Today’s ever-evolving work landscape is causing multiple challenges to the effective prevention of work-related fatalities, injuries and diseases,” says the ILO. “The impact of climate change, including extreme weather events and rising temperatur­es, changing patterns of work, fast technologi­cal advances, and the global COVID-19 pandemic, have all introduced new pressing concerns for safety and health at work.”

Canada’s recent official workplace safety track record is not improving either, with roughly one workplace fatality every eight hours. It looks like work safety headwinds, in the form of respirator­y disease, are savaging progress. The Associatio­n of Workers’ Compensati­on Boards of Canada’s statistics show a marked contrast between moderate, traumatic work-related injuries and the explosive increases in respirator­y infections.

New April labour force reports by Statistics Canada and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show work absence rates are still elevated compared to before the pandemic. Work absenteeis­m is an early indication of economic health and social cohesion.

The pandemic witnessed an explosion in work absence. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, Canadian illness, family and childcare-related work absence ballooned almost seven per cent by the end of 2023. The U.S. saw an increase of more than eight per cent.

In 2023, roughly 7.4 workers per 100,000 employees died because of the pandemic, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Meanwhile, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures show a U.S. worker pandemic death rate of eight per 100,000. The higher U.S. worker pandemic death rate reflects the relative lack of paid time off protection, compared to Canada.

The Center for Policy and Economic Research notes less than a quarter of American workers could access paid leave last year. Statistics Canada says more than twice that share of Canadian workers are covered.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, union workers are “far more likely to receive paid leave from their employers.” At 30 per cent, Canada’s union coverage is almost three times as great as the U.S. That union advantage also goes a way to explaining the difference in work absence and pandemic worker fatality rates in both countries.

There is reason to think the worst is over, at least for Canada. By last month, the gap between U.S. and Canada-wide post-pandemic work absence rates had widened substantia­lly. The U.S. is now charting double-digit increases in work absence, compared to before COVID-19, while Canada has reduced absence rates, if not to pre-pandemic levels. American and Canadian pandemic-related hospitaliz­ation rates underscore the likely route to future workplace health and safety improvemen­ts.

The most recent Canadian Institute for Health Informatio­n records show the share of COVID hospitaliz­ations by working-age residents has fallen to roughly onefifth from a previous high of almost half of admissions — a 58 per cent decline. Meanwhile, CDC weekly new COVID hospitaliz­ation admissions data shows a 25 per cent fall for 2023 compared to 2022.

Prevention is the way to secure a safe and healthy work environmen­t. That includes paid leave.

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