Thursday, May 31, 2012

OHS prosecutions in Ontario

An Ontario law firm has published some analysis of occupational health and safety prosecutions in Ontario. This analysis included 863 prosecutions resolved between January 2009 and June 2010 (so 575 per annum). 

My first reaction was that that is a lot of prosecutions. Alberta resolves between 10 and 20 prosecutions a year. On a per capita basis, Ontario’s prosecutes 10 times as many OHS charges than Alberta. Also recall that Ontario has an active OHS ticket system as well--something Alberta has been dithering on since 2004. 

The vast majority of prosecutions involve actual or potential worker injuries and a third of prosecutions are in the construction industry (which accounts for only 5% of employment activity).

The study found that at least one party is convicted and fined in 82% of prosecutions. Full trials are relatively uncommon and typically go badly for the defendant. Interestingly, those that plead guilty and have the court set their fine have fines 45% lower than those companies that plead guilty and agree on a fine with the Ministry of Labour.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, May 28, 2012

Broken windows and workplace rights

David Weil has just published an interesting paper on the application of the broken window approach to crime reduction on workplace representation. “Broken Windows,” Vulnerable Workers, and the Future of Worker Representation” asserts that routine violations of workplace right (akin to petty crime and vandalism) cause a withdrawal of workers and paves the way for more significant and persistent violations (akin to serious crime and urban decay). Moreover, as silence allows small infractions to intensify, the results of this viscous circle is a counter-intuitive lessening of complaints.

There is an intuitive appeal to this line of thinking. Looking at my own workplace, the will of my colleagues to resist day-to-day violations of contractual rights and usurping of long-established practices has declined. Resistance certainly still happens, but most are choosing to withdraw from a demonstrably poisoned workplace as a coping mechanism. This reflects that those who complaint receive on;y part of the reward (a free-rider problem) but all of the retaliation. This is evident in low participation and a significant decline in discussion about workplace issues.

This line of thinking may also partly explain broader trends such as declining employment standards and safety complaints and injury reports in the workplace. An expectation of retaliation by the employer is a significant disincentive to such reporting. Again, looking to my own workplace, many colleagues face persistent harassment from supervisors but, knowing that the reality of a “harassment-free environment” is a complaint process that drags on for 6-8 months with no clear consequence for the harasser, they simply choose to mitigate the harassment as best they can and endure the rest. Or leave.

The implications for union organizing are interesting. If persistent violations cause a withdrawal of workers, are workers likely to unionize in those workplaces? This runs contrary to conventional wisdom that workers unionize when faced with an intolerable work environment. It suggests that the role of the state in enforcing basic workplace rights is an important one. A lack of enforcement will not cause workers to help themselves. Rather, it will lead to increased violations and, in the case of OHS, more dangerous workplaces. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 25, 2012

Labour and Safety in a Natural Resource Economy

Labour and Safety in a Natural Resource Economy
Parkland Institute Oil and Democracy Lecture Series
24 May 2012, Edmonton
Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor
Labour Relations, Athabasca University

Good evening. What I’d like to talk to you about this evening are workplace injuries in Alberta—specifically why Alberta has so many injuries and why the government does nothing about it. I understand there’ll be a question period at the end, but I’m also happy to take questions (or speeches disguised as questions—if that’s the kind of crowd this is) during my presentation.  But let’s start out with me asking you some questions. Has anyone here ever been injured at work? .

That’s pretty typical of the responses I get when I ask that question—a fair number of injuries with a mix of severity. Anyone want to guess how many workplace injuries there are each year in Alberta? Okay, put your hands up if you think there are at least 25,000 injuries a year.

My estimate is that there are about 500,000 workplace injuries in Alberta each year. Which is a staggering number in a workforce of about 2 million. What’s really interesting about this is that the government never talks about these injuries.

Government Injury Statistics
Each year, the government reports about 150 occupational fatalities and around 50,000 serious workplace injuries—and that’s it. No other injuries exist if you look at government documents and press releases. Yet that is a gross understatement of the true level of injury.

WCB stats show us that an additional 100,000 or so injuries requiring medical aid—a trip to the doctor. The government knows about these injuries, but they just never mention them. So right off the bat, we see that the true level of injury in Alberta is at least 150,000 injuries per year.

We also need to account for the 13% or so of workers not covered by WCB. Their injuries aren’t recorded in the WCB claim stats the government uses because they can’t file a WCB claim. That takes us to about 175,000 injuries a year. Then we need to factor in the 40% of reportable injuries that aren’t reported, for a variety of reasons. That takes us to about 250,000 injuries a year—or five times the level of injury the government talks about.

We then need to factor in injuries which don’t have to be reported. These are minor injuries—a cut or a burn--where workers just basically tough it out. Yeah, these are minor injury but they are still injuries that we might prefer to avoid. And they are injuries we get because our employer put certain hazards in the workplace—like sharp knives in hot soapy water in a restaurant, for example.

There is no good way to estimate the frequency of minor injuries. My guess is that they are very common and likely the overall injury total is around 500,000 injuries a year. You’ll note that I’ve excluded psychological injuries—such as those caused by stress—so the real number is going to be even higher.

These numbers tell us a three things:
  • 1.     Alberta workplaces are extremely unsafe.
  • 2.     Alberta’s government consistently understates the level of injury—by a factor of 10.
  • 3.     Alberta’s occupational health and safety system is a failure.

The question then becomes, why?

Lack of Enforcement
At a basic level, Alberta workplaces are unsafe because of widespread employer non-compliance with Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code. For example, in 2011, the government announced a safety inspection blitz in residential construction. Despite knowing government inspectors were coming, the majority of the 387 employers inspected were found to have safety violations on their worksites. And a quarter of them had violations so serious there were stop-work or stop-use orders issued. This is fairly typical of inspection results.

This degree of employer non-compliance reflects anemic government enforcement. Employers know there is almost no chance they will be caught violating the rules. For example, on average, workplaces are inspected less than once every 14 years in Alberta. If you call in a safety violation, it can take safety inspectors up to 18 days to respond. So there is really no real chance of an employer getting caught.

Employers also know that, if they do get caught, there is no penalty. Most of the time, they just get ordered to remedy the violation. Alberta does prosecute a handful of employers each year—typically when the employer has killed or seriously maimed a worker. But the fines for this are levied years after the event and are tax deductable (i.e., tax-payer subsidized). And a good lawyer can get the fine paid to an employer-sponsored safety organization—that is to say, the tax-payer subsidized fine can be paid to other employers to do safety work the employer should have been doing in the first place.

As a result of this dynamic, employers adopt a cost-benefit approach to safety. They only prevent injuries that are cheaper to prevent than to incur. And because Alberta allows employers to externalize much of the cost associated with injuries onto workers and the taxpayer, very few injuries are “worth” preventing. Consequently, we have half a million annual injuries.

So why, then, does the government do such a crap job of enforcing it safety laws?

Why Does the Government Allow this to Happen?
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that the government faces few consequences when workers get maimed and killed. Workers who get WCB benefits worry they will lose their benefits if they speak out. In this way, compensation becomes a tool of manage worker discontent—it gives workers something to lose.

Employees outside of the WCB system worry about getting fired. When I say this, I’m often told that if people were getting fired for complaining about poor safety, it would be all over the press. That’s wrong for two reasons. First, people aren’t being fired, they are being subtly threatened with it and pressured to stay quiet. Second, the press doesn’t care.

We have a story from just this week where a cleaner was sexually assaulted by a coworker on the job at MacEwan University. She told her boss. And her boss fired both her and her mother. Interestingly—this story got zero media play despite the compelling narrative and the Service Employees International Union held a press conference to publicize it.

Inadequate enforcement also reflects that Alberta has a weak labour movement. For sixty years, the government has enacted laws making it hard to unionize in order to keep workers cheap and docile for employers. By contrast, Alberta has a powerful employer lobby. You hear them howl every time a minimum-wage increase is mooted and they are often to stall or turn back such an increase. Alberta politicians know better than to cross powerful employers.

Look at the 2007 royalty review. Powerful employers didn’t like it, so threaten to constrain oil production, which cuts government revenue, threatens job and caused a massive downward spiral in government popularity. Then they start funding the Wild Rose to get an even more compliant government—even after the Tories backed off. You combine that stick with the carrot of political donations and the enough oil revenue for the government to buy off problems like rural depopulation or labour unrest and you have public policy that serves the ends of business.

Regulatory Capture of Alberta’s OHS system
The upshot of this is Alberta’s OHS system has been captured by employers. In effect, the state agency that is meant to act in the public interest instead is acting in the interests of employers.
Most visibly, the health and safety system is completely ineffective at preventing workplace injury--which is its raison d’ĂȘtre). Instead, it allows employers to organize work unsafely (because that is usually the cheapest way to do so) and thereby transfer production costs to workers in the form of injury.

Alberta’s OHS system is also largely funded by employers—another characteristics of regulatory capture. In 2009, Albert spent about $23 million on injury prevention, of which nearly $22 million came from employer premiums transferred to the government from WCB. If the government suddenly lowered the boom on employers, do you think the employer-dominated workers’ compensation board would keep the money flowing?

Alberta is increasingly emphasizes partnerships with industry-funded safety associations. This allows employers to play a formal role in determining safety policy and standards. This has delayed tighter standards and focused attention on programs designed to give employers WCB premium reductions when they cut injury costs. Whether this creates safer workplaces or just encourages employers to hide injuries is an open question.

The government has also spent a lot of time blaming workers for their injuries. The most recent example is the 2008 Bloody Lucky video campaign. The videos clearly portray workers as the cause of their own injuries. For example, one video shows a shoe-store employee climbing a rickety ladder in high heels, reaching for some stock (which is stacked precariously), falling backwards, breaking an unguarded light fixture and then falling onto the glass.

The impression the video conveys is that the worker was at fault. In fact, the employer told her what shoes to wear, gave her a defective ladder, stacked the stock up high and unstably and failed to guard the light fixture. While the proximate cause of injury was the worker’s behaviour, the root caused was dangerous job design.

Workplace Injury and Democracy
When you look at OHS in Alberta, what I see is a system that doesn’t prevent injury. I see a system that allows employers to organize work unsafely and provides employers with liability protection in the form of workers’ compensation. And I see a system that gives government political cover by blaming workers for their injuries.

This system undermines the right of Albertan to a safe and healthy work environment. This arrangement is not democratic. And it’s not in the public interest. Rather, it reflects collusion between the state and powerful employers to maintain the status quo regardless of the cost to workers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sexual assault in the workplace

An interesting heath and safety story that got basically zero media play this weekend is about a contract cleaner at MacEwan University in Edmonton. The cleaner alleges she was sexually assaulted on the job and, when she complained to her supervisor, she was terminated along with her mother.

The worker, with support from SIEU (which is trying to organize workers of the contract cleaning company at other locations), filed complaints with the police, the human rights commission and occupational health and safety. Here is an excerpt from the human rights complaint filed by the cleaner:
“I was sexually harassed and assaulted by a co-worker. I ran to the front desk and called my supervisor. I explained what happened and my supervisor did not investigate the situation. Instead he told me I was fired. When my mother, who was also an employee, asked questions about the situation, she was also told she was fired. Although I was worried about further assaults from my coworker and it was cold outside, my supervisor insisted that I leave the building and wait alone outside, first for my mother to finish her shift, and then after my mother was also fired, for my mother and I to wait for the police to arrive. The employer and my supervisor had no interest in ensuring my safety or that of any of the women working on my shift and my supervisor has subsequently made it clear that he will not provide assurances that if I were to return to work, the employer would be committed to assuring a safe working environment.”
This sort of event is distressingly common. There are about 350,000 reported violent incidents in Canadian workplaces each year, including about 85,000 sexual assaults (see this StatsCan report for details).

While we do not have all of the information about this particular case, let’s assume for the moment that the assertions that (1) the worker was terminated after reporting an workplace sexual assault and (2) her employer told her to wait outside after terminating her are true.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires workers to refuse work involving imminent danger and report instances of imminent danger (s.35(1) and (3)) and employers are also prohibited from disciplining workers who do so (s.36). Sexual assault by a co-worker is not a normal hazard of an occupation and continuing to work with a co-worker who has sexually assaulted a worker appears to pose a risk of imminent danger. Terminating a worker for reporting such a danger seems to be “discipline” as contemplated by the Act.

The Act also employers (as far as reasonably practicable) ensure the health and safety of workers (s.2(1)(a)(i)). Refusing to investigate a complaint and then kicking a victim of sexual assault to the curb (where she would be exposed to the risk of another assault) seems to be a failure to ensure the health and safety of a worker. In this way, the employer’s alleged actions appear to be a violation of the OHS Act as well as common sense and decency.

Assuming the government accepts the worker’s complaint and the investigation supports the worker’s version of events, the question becomes, what will the government do? OHS inspectors typically order remediation in Alberta. It would seem to me, though, that this is an instance where a harsher penalty (i.e., prosecution) is in order. 

It will also be interesting to see how MacEwan University reacts. While MacEwan does not have direct involvement in this (cleaning is done by a contractor), its employees and students as well as the public (which funds it) have certain expectations. If the contractor does not take swift action, MacEwan may face some pressure to terminate its relationship with the contractor.

-- Bob Barnetson

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Trading Workers’ Health for Profit in a Petro-State

Trading Workers’ Health for Profit in a Petro-State
Athabasca University Arts and Science Lecture Series
18 May 2012, Edmonton
Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor
Labour Relations, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

One of the more interesting research projects underway at Athabasca right now examines the intersection of oil and democracy by querying whether and to what degree Alberta is a petro-state. Today I’m going to present a high-level overview of some research I’m doing about occupational health and safety (OHS) in Alberta. Broadly speaking, this research supports the notion that Alberta is a petro-state.

I’m going to start by identifying some of the characteristics of petro-states. Then I’m going to move into a discussion of Alberta’s OHS record and system. These two topics are linked together by the notion of human rights—that workers have a right to a safe work environment, rights that are undermined by Alberta’s anemic OHS enforcement system.

I’m then going to turn to some explanations of why this is the case. We’ll look at Alberta’s weak labour movement. This includes the ways the government acts to keep workers’ complacent as well as the effect of the oil-driven boom-bust cycle on worker interest in unions. We’ll also look at how employers pressurize politicians to create ineffective OHS enforcement. This includes considering the degree to which Alberta’s OHS regulatory system has been captured by employers.

Alberta as a Petro-State
Petro-states derive a significant portion of their revenue—typically >20%—from rents levied on petroleum extraction. Examples of petro-states exist in the Gulf (e.g., Iraq and Qatar), Africa (e.g., Libya and Nigeria) and South America (e.g., Venezuela and Brazil). Norway, Britain and Russia are also petro-states. At the sub-national level, Alaska and Alberta (25% of revenue) are also petro-states by this definition.

Petro-states display a number of characteristics. These include highly concentrated wealth, weak public institutions and authoritarian rule. These characteristics appear to flow from heavy reliance on oil rents. The link between the government and producers is strengthened because oil is the “golden goose”.
To the degree they exist, links between government and citizens are weakened. Governments are less reliant upon personal taxation to operate and oil wealth facilitates buying off and/or repression opposition. The economy also becomes slaved to oil: manufacturing and agriculture are suppressed by a high dollar and high wages dampening export markets.

Counter-intuitively, petro-states tend to exhibit high levels of poverty, low level of education and poor health care and nutrition. There tends to be significant corruption and a democratic deficit. The question that Lorna Stefanick and Meenal Shrivastava are looking into is the degree to which Alberta demonstrates these political, economic and social characteristics.

Workplace Injury in Alberta
Bluntly, Alberta jobsites are unsafe places to work. Each year, the government reports approximately 150 occupational fatalities and 50,000 serious injuries. The true level of injury in Alberta is approximately 500,000 annual injuries. This reflects widespread employer non-compliance with Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code. For example, in 2011, the government announced a safety inspection blitz in the residential construction industry. Despite knowing government inspectors were coming, the majority of the 387 employers inspected were found to have safety violations on their worksites.

Non-compliance reflects anemic enforcement. Employers know there is almost no chance they will be caught violating safety rules. For example, on average, workplaces are inspected less than once every 14 years in Alberta. And it can take safety inspectors up to 18 days to respond to reports of unsafe workplaces. Employers also know that, if they do get caught, there is almost no chance they will be penalized.
Alberta does prosecute a handful of employers each year—typically when the employer has killed or seriously maimed a worker. Fines are levied years after the event and are tax deductable (i.e., tax-payer subsidized). A good lawyer can get the fine paid for an employer-sponsored safety organization—that is to say, a tax-payer subsidized fine can be paid to other employers to do safety work the employer should have been doing in the first place.

As a result of this dynamic, employers adopt a cost-benefit approach to safety. They only prevent injuries that are cheaper to prevent than to incur. As Alberta allows employers to externalize much of the cost associated with injuries onto workers and the taxpayer, few injuries are “worth” preventing. Consequently, we have half a million annual injuries.

Human Rights and Democracy in Alberta
The nexus between OHS and petro-states is found in notions of human rights. Albertans possess a range of human rights, which often characterize liberal democracies. Two human rights important to this presentation are the freedom to associate (which is the basis of collective action in the workplace) and the right to health (which underlies injury prevention efforts). The freedom of association finds protection in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as expression in provincial statutes, such as Alberta’s Labour Relations Code. The right to health exists in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes the right to safe and healthy working conditions. Alberta has accommodated workers’ desire to avoid workplace injuries by enacting a variety of statutes, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

One categorization of human rights divides them into civil, political and social rights. Civil rights codified a set of relations between individuals based on the capitalist mode of production. The purpose of these rights is to protect individual liberty, property, security and justice. Civil rights are typically embedded in nations’ constitutional documents and are protected by the state.

Also embedded in these constitutional documents are certain political rights—rights allowing direct or indirect participation in the establishment or administration of government, such as the right to vote and hold public office. These political rights (eventually) allowed (most) citizens to participate (in various ways) in periodic elections, thereby legitimizing the government: the ruled choose the government of the day and its policies. Yet the political choices available to citizens do not typically challenge the underlying civil rights that structure relationships in society. Further, the notional political equality of citizens is significantly undermined by the economic inequalities between various groups of citizens, most commonly labour and capital.

Social rights were the last type of rights to emerge and are an attempt to ameliorate the negative effects of capitalism (i.e., the operation of civil and political rights). For example, when workers are unable to access the basic necessities of life because their wages are poor or they are unemployed, this threatens the availability of workers as well as workers accepting their subordinate position in society—necessary components of social reproduction. For these reasons, the state may intervene in the operation of the labour market or workplace or provide necessary services or supports.

The regulation and public provision associated with social rights often infringe upon civil rights and are a source of conflict between labour and capital. As social rights run contrary to civil rights, they also do not typically find expression in constitutional documents. Rather, they are voluntarily codified by the state in legislation or international agreements. Consequently, social rights are much easier to change over time than are political or civil rights, are often weakly or not enforced, and are more subject to particular political alignments and pressures.

It is axiomatic that rights without remedy are not really rights at all. That is to say, if workers cannot consistently realize their right to health, then they don’t actually have such a right in anything other than a notional sense. As I noted before, Alberta workplaces are extremely unsafe and workers are routinely maimed and killed because government enforcement is ineffective. This seems to naturally lead to the question of why is government enforcement of workers’ rights to health so ineffective?

Organized Labour in Alberta
A part of the answer is that organized labour is a weak presence in Alberta workplaces and is largely excluded from public policy making. There are a number of factors that contribute to this situation. Only 25% of Alberta workers (mostly in the public sector) were unionized in 2011, the lowest rate of unionization in Canada. Further, the largest sectors in Alberta’s economy (energy, construction and finance) are mostly non-unionized. In this way, the dominant employment paradigm in Alberta has been (and remains) non-union. While segments of Alberta workers periodically exhibit significant support for trade unionism, this has not translated into union members or political influence.

This may be partly explained as an impact of successive Alberta governments enacting employer-friendly labour laws. For example, the Labour Relations Code requires certification votes regardless of how much worker support a union demonstrates. Under such a system, workers are less able to gain union representation than card-check system. The Alberta Labour Relations Board does not have the power of automatic certification to remedy unfair labour practices during organizing campaigns. And the government has resisted calls for first-contract arbitration provisions. All of these policy choices aid employers to resist union organizing campaigns.

The government also frequently intervenes directly in the labour market to the benefit of employers. For example, the government has intervened in unionization to benefit “friendly” unions and punish combative ones as well as widely prohibiting strikes in the public sector. The government has expanded the labour force via migration to limit the labour market power of workers and facilitate union avoidance tactics. And the government intervenes directly in collective bargaining, but only when it benefits employers (including itself).

That said, it is also important to recognize that many Alberta workers do not see trade unions as particularly useful. Alberta’s energy-driven boom-and-bust cycles mean that workers have substantial personal labour market power during the booms (thus do not need unions). During the busts, unions have experienced difficulty protecting worker interests. Further, migrants from other provinces comprise a significant portion of Alberta’s workforce and they have historically exercised exit options rather than resist unfavorable working conditions. The upshot is that Alberta’s labour movement, while not powerless, is not a key player and is often unable to shape public policy.

Impact of Oil and Agricultural Industries on Public Policy
In addition to a weak labour movement, Alberta has an influential employer lobby that appears able to shape public policy in ways that advantage it. Some of this stems from the basic neoliberal orientation of Alberta progressive conservative politicians: they broadly accept that the purpose of government is to facilitate the operation of business. Alberta employers also have a number of ways of exerting influence on public policy. For example, it is useful to examine the electoral benefits that accrue to politicians who maintain a repressive and injurious labour relations system.

Historically, agriculture was economically and politically important in Alberta. Prior to 1945, the agricultural community supported limits on farm worker rights. Although the economic importance of agriculture diminished after the 1947 discovery of oil, rural Alberta has retained political importance through the development of a symbiotic electoral relationship with the provincial government. Revenue from the growing oil and gas industry has allowed the government to fund significant rural public infrastructure (e.g. highways, hospitals and nursing homes) and programming. This spending has, in turn, garnered the government strong political support from rural constituencies that governments have ensured are electorally over-represented in the legislature.

One outcome of this arrangement has been that the government continues to exclude farm workers from most basic statutory employment rights despite the absence of any substantive argument for doing so. A second outcome is that the government can continue its long tradition of privileging employer interests, particularly in the oil and gas industry. For example, during the 1950s and 1960s, Alberta’s Social Credit government sought to maintain a weak labour movement to facilitate the development of the oil industry. The election of a Progressive Conservative government in 1971 broadly continued this policy direction.

Alberta’s boom-and-bust cycle has also triggered state intervention to curtail workers’ ability to resist employer demands. This includes legislative change in the 1980s to facilitate union avoidance, public-sector wage rollbacks and job losses in the early 1990s as well as further changes to labour laws and the expansion of child labour and migrant worker populations to loosen the labour market in the 2000s. Similar favorable treatment of the oil industry in environmental regulation and taxation as well as regulatory reform favorable to other employer groups has also been identified.

The upshot of these circumstances is that Alberta employers, among whom oil companies feature prominently, have created pressures, opportunities and inducements to continue and exacerbate Alberta’s tradition of privileging the interests of employers over workers. They have also made significant direct financial contributions to the Conservative Party, which can’t hurt their ability to access and influence policy. In workplace health and safety issues, there is evidence that employers have effectively captured the regulatory system and turned it to their own ends.

Regulatory Capture of Alberta’s OHS system
Regulatory capture occurs when a state agency designed to act in the public interest instead acts to advance the interests of an important stakeholder group. Once captured, a regulatory agency can then be used by that stakeholder group to impose costs on other stakeholders, even if such costs are contrary to the public interest. Captured regulators often see themselves as partners of the captors they are supposed to regulate and may even find themselves financed by that group.

Alberta’s OHS system exhibits several characteristics of regulatory capture. This includes including ineffective regulation of workplace safety by employers that transfers costs to workers, employer funding, industry-government partnerships that allow employers to set standards and perform auditing, the introduction of a questionable safety incentive systems for employers, and government messaging around safety that deflects blame for workplace injuries onto workers.

The ineffective enforcement of Alberta’s OHS laws has been discussed already. This issue of who funds OHS in Alberta is trickier to unravel. Of the $23.3 million Alberta spent on OHS in 2009, roughly $21.7 million came from employer premiums transferred to the government from the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). In this way, OHS is (indirectly) funded by employers. This funding is contingent upon continued approval by the WCB’s industry-dominated Board of Directors.
Since the 1990s, industry-funded safety associations have increasingly entered into “partnerships” with the government. These partnerships allow employers play a formal role in determining policy and standards as well as sponsor various safety awareness campaigns and perform safety auditing functions. 

A 1997 strategic plan for Alberta’s Partnerships framework explains the thinking underlying this approach:
“Partnerships is based upon the premise that more can be achieved through a cooperative, collaborative approach than by a one sided, dictatorial or interventionist approach. Leverage and synergy is possible without duplicating efforts and ‘re-inventing the wheel’. Partnerships strives to promote a culture of increased proactive health and safety attitudes and behaviour in the workplace. These cannot be legislated!”
This model prioritizes employer autonomy over regulation and government is viewed as a facilitator of employer-driven initiatives. Given the level of injury in Alberta workplaces, I think we should rightly question whether this partnerships model is effective.

The “collaborative” processes established by government to review standards created employer dominated “working groups” deliberating over small changes for extended periods. This led to a “culture of compromise” among labour representatives on the groups, which undermined the effectiveness of labour’s capacity to improve safety for workers.

The government has also linked the achievement of a Certificate of Recognition (COR) and employer claims costs to WCB premium reductions. These incentives are in addition incentives that exist under the WCB’s own experience-rating system. Yet, a 2010 audit raised questions about whether the Partnership in Injury Reduction program has made workplaces safer.

The partnership model has also intensified government promulgation of the careless work myth in Alberta injury prevention efforts. The careless work myth explains occupational injuries as the result of workers being accident prone, careless or even reckless. The most egregious example is the 2008 Bloody Lucky video campaign. The videos clearly and inaccurately portray workers as the cause of their own injuries.

For example, one video shows a shoe-store employee climbing a rickety ladder in high heels, reach to grab some stock (which is stacked precariously), fall backwards, break an unguarded light fixture and then fall onto the glass. The impression the video conveys is that the worker was at fault. In fact, the employer told her what shoes to wear, gave her a defective ladder, stacked the stock up high and unstably and failed to guard the light fixture. While the proximate cause of injury was the worker’s behaviour, the root caused was dangerous job design.

Bloody Lucky is the culmination of a trend in Alberta safety campaigns (that intensified during after 1995) of blaming workers for their injuries. Analysis of this campaign demonstrates that the bureaucrats involved with the campaign have difficulty identifying blaming behaviour and view such a messaging as important in securing political support for the campaign. The result of this campaign is that the state has mis-informed young workers about the nature of workplace hazards and appropriate mitigation strategies by publically shifted blame for injuries away from employers.

Workplace injury as a bellwether for democracy
The purpose of this research was to consider whether workplace safety in Alberta is consistent with the petro-state thesis. I believe the answer is yes.

There is substantial evidence that employers have disproportionate access to and say in legislative decision-making around occupational health and safety. Some of this influence comes from direct political contributions made by employers to the Conservative Party. And some of it comes via the importance of these employers to Alberta’s economic stability. Consider the fallout from the Stelmach government’s oil royalty review of 2007. Oil companies threatened a capital strike and Stelmach retreated. Oil companies then began funding an alternative political party, which came close to defeating the Conservatives. Clearly, you don’t screw with big oil in Alberta.

The long-term result of this arrangement is labour policies that are favorable to employers. Indeed, Alberta’s workplace health and safety system exhibits characteristics suggesting regulatory capture by employers—the very group OHS agencies are supposed to regulate. There is evidence of similar extraordinary employer influence in employment standards, labour relations and Alberta’s approach to immigration. As a result of this, employers appear to receive special treatment before the law. Specifically, employers have little chance of being caught breaking the law and virtually no chance to being assessed a penalty.

Alberta has also placed significant limits on workers’ freedom of association. This has created a weak labour movement that, in turn, has facilitated Alberta undermining workers’ right to health via ineffective injury-prevention efforts. Consequently, the costs associated with work-related injuries are externalized onto workers, their families and society. Where significant resistance emerges to this behaviour, the state is often able to buy offs unions through well timed settlements.

Stepping back from the specifics of OHS, what we see is evidence of power being concentrated in the hands of oil companies and conservative MLAs, creating an authoritarian and highly stable power structure. Public institutions are captured by employers and weakened to serve employer interests. Worker rights are virtually unenforceable and thus are meaningless. This is consistent with the notion that there is a democratic deficit in Alberta.

Generalizing from such narrow research has its perils, which is why I’m keen to see what the other contributors to this project come up with. I have a second project examining how the growth and treatment of temporary foreign workers accords with the petro-state thesis that I’m working on with Jason Foster from the Faculty of Business. We’ll be presenting some preliminary results at the Canadian Political Science Association conference in June.

The short version of that research is that migrant workers are a population vulnerable to exploitation. Alberta employers have sought to increasingly meet their labour needs via migrant workers. This lowers employer’s direct wage bill and undermines the labour market power of domestic workers.

The federal and provincial governments have responded to the desires of employers by making it easier to bring in “temporary” foreign workers. The state has sought to manage issues of exploitation of these workers mostly by managing the message and, when there is a big stink, through minor and ineffective regulatory processes. This behaviour is broadly consistent with the behaviour of Gulf states, which utilize large amount of unfree guest workers and again adds evidence that Alberta is a petro-state.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alberta 2011 Workplace Fatalities

The Edmonton Journal is reporting 123 compensable fatalities on Alberta worksites in 2011, down from 136 in 2010. Breaking the numbers down some, the Journal also reports that worksite deaths jumped, MVA deaths were steady and occupational-disease deaths were down. I haven't been able to lay my hands on the full report yet.

Government spokesperson Barrie Harrison noted that the government will be moving forward with fines for safety violations. The Occupational Health and Safety Act was amended in 2004 (I think--memory is hazy) to allow fines, but there has been no political will to move forward with operationalizing these provisions. We heard similar promises a year ago, so I'm not going to hold my breath.

From Harrison's comments, it also looks like the province will be looking to fine both employers and employees. Harrison notes "Everyone has a role to play--right from the CEO of a major corporation, to labour groups, to safety associations, to the worker."

Fining workers is a contentious issue. Some folks believe that fining employees will drive injury underground by suppressing reports. "Sorry you got hurt, bud. You know, if you report the injury, you're gonna get a ticket." There is something to this critique.

Other folks note that, by fining workers, the government is conceptually spreading the blame for injuries which ultimately flow from employer decisions about the design of work (i.e., which hazards workers will be exposed to) and employer decisions about how much supervision to provide.

My own sense is that allowing OHS officers to fine workers is a political sop to employers who don't want to be labelled as the cause of workplace injuries. The real questions here are (1) will the government actually move forward with enacting ticket regulations, and (2) if they do so, will officers actually ticket anyone?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Safety inspections with penalties reduce injuries

A new study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine finds that workplace safety inspections (with penalties) of manufacturing businesses by the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reduced workplace injuries 19-24% over the following two years.

"A new estimate on the impact of OSHA inspections on manufacturing injury rates, 1998-2005" reports these effects do not appear in workplaces under 20 or over 250 employees or in the absence of penalties. Both programmed (i.e., planned) inspections and complaint-driven inspections generated this result, but programmed inspections appeared more effective at generating a reduction in injuries.

To the degree that this study is generalizable, there are several implications relevant to Alberta. First, inspections only appear to work when linked to a penalty for non-compliance (this is broadly supported by the literature). Employers do not meaningfully respond to non-penalty inspections. Second, the effect of inspections lasts about two years. A 14-year inspection cycle (as per Alberta) is unlikely to motivate employers to operate safely.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 4, 2012

Temporary foreign workers at Lakeside Packers

Alberta Views has published an interesting piece on the growing use of temporary foreign workers at the Xl Lakeside Packers plant in Brooks. The workforce at Lakeside has changed significantly over the years as various owners have sought to intensify production and cut costs. In doing so, they radically (and racially) altered the composition of the labour force. This, in turn, has caused dramatic changes in the surrounding communities.

Lakeside had a very hot labour dispute in 2005 which had significant racial dimensions. You can see a great video about the strike on the Alberta Labour History Institute website (note the language is saucy). There was also an NFB documentary 24 days in Brooks. Subsequent to this strike, Lakeside began relying increasingly on TFWs--perhaps part of a strategy to create a more docile labour force.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day and some public lectures

A couple of items have come through my email in the past few days that are of interest.

My colleague Ingo Schmidt has written an interesting piece about why capitalists are waging war on workers and what we can do about it (just in time for May Day). There is also a May Day march tonight in Edmonton starting at 5:30.

And the Parkland Institute and the U of A's Community Service Learning program are hosting a (free!) spring speaker series on oil and democracy. There are five presentations (from 7-8:30 on Thursday nights in room NRE 1 001 of the University of Alberta. These include:

May 10: Contextualizing democracy by Dr. Ian Urquhart
May 17: Institutions of Democracy by Rob Macintosh and David Campanelle
May 24: Labour in a natural resource economy by Bob Barnetson and Gil McGowan
May 31: Issues of equity, aboriginal rights by Eriel Deranger
June 7: Environmentalism and international activism by Mike Hudema and Chelsea Flook

Speaking of oil and democracy, I will be hosting a (free) lecture in Edmonton on May 18 (3-4:30) as part of Athabasca University's Arts and Sciences lecture series. It is entitled something along the lines of "Trading Health for Profit in a Petrostate" and examines how workplace health and safety is impacted by an oil-driven economy. This lecture will be held on the 11th floor of Peace Hills Trust Tower (109th Street and 100th Ave) in Edmonton.

Finally, there are two panels at the Canadian Political Science Association conference in Edmonton on June 13 (I think). I will be presenting some research Jason Foster and I have done regarding the implication for democracy of the growing use of temporary foreign workers in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson