In the recently published Parkland Institute study Safer by Design: How Alberta Can Improve Workplace Safety, authors Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull and Bob Barnetson offer recommendations to address the unacceptable (and underestimated) number of workplace injuries and illnesses through better preventive measures, occupational health and safety education and labour law enforcement. While acknowledging recent legislative improvements, their research reveals a breakdown in the Internal Responsibility System underlying the workplace health and safety system. Their survey data suggests that almost half of Alberta employers are violating basic OH&S rules, while 70% of disabling workplace injuries go unreported – with workers either afraid to exercise their rights (and in particularly dangerous workplaces “scared to even ask for health & safety information”) or skeptical it will result in effective action.
As sobering as the official statistics on workplace injuries are, our study revealed they’re just the tip of the iceberg
Among key recommendations of the report: increased workplace inspections (and allowing for inspections by civil society groups); more significant and mandatory penalties for violations and greater transparency for easier and more public tracking; improved worker-focused education on rights with occupational health & safety integrated into the entire school curriculum.
Just on the books or law in action?
The report was issued shortly before the national Day of Mourning. A recent blog post by Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University professor of labour relations, suggests that during this once-a-year spotlight on workplace injury, workers might be best served by pushing the government to fund much more rigorous enforcement of law on the books which, research shows, is what actually affects employer behaviour.
Other jurisdictions are grappling with similar concerns over under-reporting and incomplete data driving policy and regulation, and insufficient enforcement of employer compliance with safety legislation. The recently published 2018 Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates (Apr. 23) by Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe contains recommendations on Canadian work injury data limitations aimed at improving accuracy and comparability for analysis and promoting better prevention measures. The need for a harmonized, reliable national database on actual work injury and illness numbers was highlighted last year in the Globe and Mail’s Nov 2017 investigative report “We’re not seeing the truth: Inside the hidden dangers of the Canadian workplace”.
The accuracy of workers’ compensation claims data for decisionmaking is questioned in the February 2018 submission by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) to the Ministry’s ongoing Safe At Work consultation
Statistical trends on lost time injury claims significantly mask the true rate of work-related injury.
The OFL takes issue with using WSIB injury data to measure employers’ health and safety performance given the incentives under experience rating for claims suppression and the number of employers not covered by the workers’ compensation system. Addressing also the inadequacy of penalties, enforcement and transparency, the brief highlights reliance of a properly functioning Internal Responsibility System on employer compliance in reporting on injury and illness to provide the information needed to monitor the effectiveness of programs and policies, and identify gaps.
The AFL/CIO’s latest Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect (Apr. 2018) on the state of occupational health and safety in the United States reports that, among the many challenges posed by the current administration to regulatory protection of workers’ safety and rights, resources for OH&S investigation have been substantially reduced while penalties for violations remain low. The annual report also highlights the substantial understatement of the true extent of workplace injuries and illnesses – estimated to be two to three times greater than official statistics – due to limitations in the current injury reporting system and widespread underreporting. Research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, underway since 2009, aimed at improving the accuracy of data collected by the national Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses is continuing. Meanwhile a 2018 consensus study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine A Smarter National Surveillance System for Occupational Health and Safety in the Twenty-First Century proposes a more robust system to “provide the critical information needed to inform policy development, guide educational and regulatory activities, develop safer technologies, and enable research and prevention strategies that protect all workers.”
Michelle Poland. May 1, 2018. Who Claims for Injury? (Institute for Work & Health speaker series video) – With research suggesting that workers’ compensation claims data represents only a fraction of actual injuries at work, the presentation discusses findings from a study whether a similar pattern of under-reporting exists in New Zealand’s universal, no-fault accident compensation system.