By the end of this year, Alberta’s Ministry of Human Services will have 132 workplace safety inspectors on the road, a 29.3 per cent increase since 2011, when the rate of lost time injuries spiked for the first time in 10 years.
Beefing-up the province’s safety inspection force was prompted, in part, by the unprecedented growth in urban commercial and new home residential construction across the province in recent years, according to Brookes Merritt, a ministry spokesperson.
More recently and especially now, he added, the development of the oil sands reserves in the Wood Buffalo region in the North, which includes Fort McMurray, has imposed a greater need for safety inspectors who can specialize in mining safety, construction safety, as well as transportation and forestry safety.
The officers are mobile and are deployed throughout the province in numbers commensurate with the level of activity in a given industry, depending on the industry, he added.
“Statistically, these industries are among the most hazardous work environments,” Merritt stated in an email. “The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) department’s focus on these sectors, in addition to upstream oil and gas industries, and the health and safety of young workers, reflects the rapid pace of economic development in this region.
This new, expanded and specialized safety inspection team will not only continue to conduct and report on their Focused Inspection Campaigns as they always have in the workplaces of employers with “historically less-than-stellar health and safety records,” Merritt said. “We do this through various methods:
a) By repeating inspections of known non-compliers to ensure previous commitments to improve health and safety are being met;
b) The Employer Review Process holds Certifying Partners accountable for ensuring conditions of certification are maintained;
c) The Employer Injury and Illness Prevention Program identifies specific employers with a Disabling Injury Rate that is at least 2.5 times greater than the provincial average. This program pairs employers with OHS officers whose goal Is to educate them about the legislation, and assist them in developing health and safety practices that will reduce injury rates.
Merritt said, “I can tell you the most frequent cause of injury is ‘slips, trips, and falls’ a large proportion of which are due to the failure to wear PPE when working from heights. Falling from heights is the most consistently reported workplace injury in the construction sectors.”
Now, safety inspectors will have additional responsibilities, heightened authority and will be indispensible in enforcing the Ministry’s tough new OHS legislation, Bill 6, the Protections and Compliance Statutes Amendments Act, which affects the Occupational Health and Safety Act and two other pieces of legislation.
In October 2012, when it was first introduced, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said, “There will be no more slaps on the wrist in Alberta; a worker or employer who puts health and safety at risk, or is misleading or unfair in their business dealings, will be held accountable.”
According to Bill 6, which passed in December 2012, Alberta’s OHS department can levy “administrative penalties” against employers for up to $10,000 per day if they break the law and to workers for hundreds of dollars through a ticketing system for on-the-spot safety violations.
Details of Alberta’s provisions for ticketing and penalty systems are currently being developed, but the “administrative penalties are expected to begin being levied this fall,” Merritt said. “Ticketing – which requires retraining for officers – is expected to begin implementation next spring.”
Industry reaction to Bill 6 “has been ‘muted’ thus far, Merritt stated. “Industry and labour organizations have been accepting of the changes, but we have yet to see what reactions will be once penalties are levied.”
A few sparks were flying, however, the week after Bill 6 was first announced. In a November 1, 2012 Calgary Herald news story, written by former Herald reporter Kelly Cryderman, the Alberta Construction Association (ACA), which represents 2,000 construction companies, strongly opposed the new administrative penalties and ticketing system.
“There’s a presumption that employers are the bad guys, and we’ll just ramp up the fines and we’ll fix those bad guys,” Ken Gibson, ACA executive director is quoted as saying. “It’s not evidence-based. There is no suggestion we can see that it actually is going to work.”
Not all businesses or labour groups opposed these penalties, Cryderman wrote.
“At the end of the day, workplace safety is primarily the responsibility of employers and government, as regulator,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Furthermore, Dave Fennell, senior safety advisor for Imperial Oil Resources said, “Right now there are employers in the province of Alberta who are not taking safety seriously,” citing one week last fall when five Alberta workers died on separate job sites.
Of six Alberta safety experts consulted only one was willing to comment on Bill 6 – Edmonton-based safety consultant and best-selling author Alan D. Quilley, CRSP of Safety Results.
“The model of crime and punishment hasn’t worked really well in other areas of law…speeders continue, distracted drivers really haven’t changed their behaviour, banks still get robbed and the war on drugs…well we know how that’s working,” Quilley said. “This appears that the government is doing something…mission accomplished, from the government’s point of view.
“Lasting change rarely comes from these types of ‘enforcement’ interventions. It does increase the discussions about the need for safety management, so that’s a positive thing,” he said.