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Cheery media release about Alberta job safety 'progress' omits key fact

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According to a news release from Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, cynically timed yesterday to exploit the International Day of Mourning for workers killed and injured by their work, Alberta has made "good progress reducing workplace injuries." Occupational fatalities are also down in Alberta, the minister said in his statement.

Alas, Lukaszuk's media release omits mention of one fact so important that it reduces his cheery claims to not much more than a cynical fantasy intentionally designed to mislead naïve journalists and voters. This strategy seems to have worked, at least as far as journalists are concerned. At any rate, local daily newspapers reprinted the news release pretty much verbatim.

The true reason workplace deaths and injuries were down in Alberta in 2009 was the recession. Period. Full stop. The actions of Lukaszuk's ministry, or any other branch of the Alberta government, had nothing to do with it.

It strains credulity to ask citizens who are paying attention to accept that the Employment Ministry (which is what Alberta calls its ministry of labour) does not know this.

Regarding injuries, the statistics cited in the minister's release and an optimistic chart accompanying it purport to show decreasing numbers of lost-time claims. But these calculations are highly suspect. The Alberta Workers Compensation Board continues with its campaign to reduce claims through financial incentives to employers (which perversely encourages bosses to discourage workers from reporting injuries), by denying many legitimate claims and forcing injured workers back to work too soon.

But let's take work-related deaths alone as a yardstick, because the numbers of dead bodies are a little harder for the government to fudge.

According to the Alberta WCB, there were 110 "occupational fatalities" in 2009, down from 166 in 2008.

The WCB's terminology includes death from occupational diseases, "workplace incidents" and work-related motor vehicle accidents. True numbers, though impossible to verify, are almost certainly much higher -- including work-related car crashes not reported as involving work, self-employed workers killed at home, workers killed on farms, workers killed on federally regulated job sites and deaths from occupational diseases the WCB refuses to recognize as work related.

The downward statistical blip in 2009 was recorded during a period when the global recession slowed production in Alberta's oil patch and related service sectors and forced working people out of thousands of jobs.

With the provincial economy seemingly on the rebound, again little thanks to the government of Alberta, work-related deaths are rebounding as well.

There were 36 occupational fatalities recorded by the WCB in the first three months of 2010. By simple multiplication projection alone, that puts us on track to have record 144 by the end of 2010. Since the period from May to November is traditionally busier than the rest of the year, work-related deaths are likely to be much higher in this period too. As a result, Alberta will likely meet or exceed 2008's tragic toll in 2010.

What will Lukaszuk's news release say this time next year? That "we can still do better"?

Actually, he said that this year too.

His predecessor at the Employment Ministry, Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Godreau, said almost exactly the same thing in 2008: "There are still far too many workers in Alberta getting killed on the job…."

Indeed, Alberta Conservative employment ministers always say something like this when the annual death toll is announced.

The trouble is, just like Lukaszuk, they never do the things that need to be done to bring the death toll down, like aggressively enforcing safety laws, vigorously prosecuting companies that violate safety rules, naming companies that have too many accidents, inspecting workplaces without tipping off employers in advance, requiring workplace safety committees and hiring enough safety inspectors. (Only Quebec and B.C. employ fewer per capita.)

Until then, all these ministerial press releases aren’t good for much except paper recycling … one way or another.

Until then, Alberta remains among the most dangerous Canadian provinces in which to work.

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