Monday, August 18, 2008

Sask. WCB Chair David Eberle sidesteps call for tougher enforcement of safety legislation; OHS Division inspections lagging behind workforce growth

On May 7, 2008, Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) Chair David Eberle announced the new Mission: Zero campaign, a series of safety and prevention programs and an advertising campaign intended to reach the WCB’s goal of eliminating work injuries.

The Mission: Zero campaign includes two television ads, four print ads, and Mission: Zero buses in Regina and Saskatoon.

Mission: Zero will be delivered as part of WorkSafe Saskatchewan, the WCB’s injury prevention partnership with the Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour.

Eberle said the new, edgier campaign is designed to shock Saskatchewan people out of their complacency about workplace injuries.

Eberle said the WCB wants to dispel the notion that workplace accidents are the cost of doing business in Saskatchewan. In fact, the WCB wants to banish the term “workplace accidents” from our vocabulary.

“We believe that every workplace injury is predictable and preventable -- that even one work injury is one too many.” [Board plans aggressive campaign (Leader-Post, May 7, 2008)]

In a letter to the editor of the Regina Leader-Post, Eberle said “The Mission: Zero initiative is not about taking sides or blaming either workers or employers. It is about changing our attitudes. Very clearly, to be successful we need everyone’s attention. Employers and workers need to work together to help achieve our goal. Employers have clear responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act; workers have both rights and responsibilities.”

“In addition to the Mission: Zero public awareness campaign, we need to examine every component of injury prevention, including the enforcement of safety legislation and the effectiveness of safety training. We also need to be sure we educate young people entering the workplace about their rights and the importance of adopting safe work practices,” Eberle said. [Making workplaces safer (Leader-Post, Aug. 2, 2008)]

Eberle was responding to a letter by Regina resident Robert Pitzel who took issue with the WCB’s new campaign saying it “delivers a terrible disservice to workplace safety. Through various return-to-work programs and smaller injuries that workers suck up, time-loss accidents are being reduced, but not the accident rate itself.”

Pitzel said “it is past time our governments became more responsible for protecting workers by better enforcement of worker’s rights and safety legislation” and that “organizations responsible for safety enforcement and compensation are shirking their responsibilities or plodding down the wrong path to prevent such tragedies.”

“Saskatchewan’s Occupational Health and Safety division should be strictly enforcing safety legislation, not handing out warnings and letting unsafe work continue because the employer is “working on it” which is often the case.” [We need to work on safety (Leader-Post, July 31, 2008)]

Pitzel’s claim that time-loss accidents are being reduced while the accident rate itself is not appears to be accurate. The WCB’s Report to Stakeholders 07 shows that from 2003 to 2007 time loss claims decreased from 14,876 to 13,483, but the total reported accidents during that time increased from 38,919 to 41,301.

Eberle’s response seems to have sidestepped some of Pitzel’s concerns.

Saying we need to “examine” the enforcement of safety legislation, as Eberle does, isn’t the same thing as saying there should be tougher enforcement, which is something Eberle doesn’t come close to doing.

The WCB has no interest in being in the enforcement business and does not appear to support tougher enforcement of legislation.

“OH&S infractions are not reported to the Workers’ Compensation Board, nor should they be. And it is not our contention that we will become the regulator that we are going to set regulation to force people,” WCB Chief Executive Office Peter Federko said during a question and answer session at the WCB’s annual general meeting on May 7 in Saskatoon.

“[O]ne of the things that the Board has charged us with in terms of moving Mission Zero ahead quickly is to work with our partners at Advanced Education, Employment and Labour to develop a more coordinated, integrated provincial prevention strategy.”

However, Federko made his position clear stating that he was “not prepared to step into the shoes of any employer in this province and direct them to make injury prevention a priority in their workplaces. We will incent them, encourage them, facilitate in whatever way we can, but it’s the responsibility of the leadership and the organizations to make it a priority. In my opinion, it’s not going to help by strong public policy or regulatory requirements forcing them to do it.”

Increased enforcement of safety legislation does not appear to be a part of the WCB’s vision for the future. The WCB’s Strategic and Operational Plan 2008-2010 does not mention it. On the issue of safety and prevention the organization’s operational objective is “To eliminate workplace injuries and illnesses, as measured through a continuous reduction to the provincial workplace injury rate.”

The WCB’s focus is on prevention: “We will promote workplace safety and injury prevention. We will support workers and employers in the development and implementation of injury prevention programs that eliminate workplace injuries.”

At any rate, enforcement isn’t up to the WCB, that responsibility lies with the government and there doesn’t appear to be any meaningful appetite for it on that front either.

The labour section of the Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) website states that “The legal responsibility for identifying and correcting health and safety hazards rests on the shoulders of the workplace parties (employers, contractors, owners, workers, supervisors, self-employers persons, owners and suppliers). The Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993, and Regulations require everyone in the workplace to work together to identify and control health and safety hazards.”

Although workers must take reasonable precautions to protect their own health and safety, as well as the health and safety of others, the ministry is clear that “Employers have the most control over the conditions of work and how it is to be done. They therefore have the greatest legal and moral responsibility for health and safety in the workplace.”

The role of the AEEL’s Occupational Health and Safety Division is to help promote safe and healthy workplaces through education, training, inspections, accident investigations and enforcement of workplace safety standards.

The OHS Division has three major enforcement tools: Officer Reports of inspections; notices of Contravention; and the ability to stop work and prosecution.

Despite having these tools the ministry feels that “Finding and controlling occupational health and safety hazards should not be left to occupational health officers. It is not the OHO’s job to find the hazards for the workplace parties. When OHO’s do come across hazards, it means the workplace parties are not fulfilling their legal health and safety responsibilities.”

“Regular, on-going monitoring of the workplace by effective occupational health committees, worker representatives, workers and managers is a much better way of dealing with health and safety concerns than relying solely on inspections and enforcement by government officials,” the website states.

The OHS Division considers prosecution when: a contravention of health and safety requirements results in a death or serious injury; a person repeatedly refuses to comply with a Notice of Contravention; or a person consistently and flagrantly contravenes health and safety requirements.

So unless a death or serious injury occurs it appears that it takes a lot of effort to get prosecuted. In order to do that one must “repeatedly” or “consistently and flagrantly” break the rules.

What kind of message is being sent to workers and employers when provincial officials and the WCB waffle on the use of enforcement measures to ensure that safety legislation is being adhered to?

On the political front the business friendly Saskatchewan Party government does not appear to be interested in increasing the enforcement of safety legislation.

At the Apr. 28 meeting of the legislature’s human services committee, during debate of the Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour 2008-09 budget, Minister Rob Norris said the Saskatchewan Party government “realizes the importance of protecting the health and safety of Saskatchewan workers, and we fully support the work of the occupational health and safety division.”

“Our workers are extremely important to the well-being of Saskatchewan, and ensuring their health and safety is necessary to a secure and prosperous future,” Norris said.

Norris went on to boast that the 2008-09 budget includes an 11.6 per cent increase for occupational health and safety.

(The 2008-09 Estimates for occupational health and safety (Sub Vote AE09) show a budget of $7,653,000 for the division, an increase of $796,000 (11.6%) from 2007-08.)

“Of this increase, $300,000 will go directly to funding programs that prevent work-related illness, injury, and death. Part of sustaining our economic momentum is ensuring that we have a talented, skilled, and experienced workforce within Saskatchewan. We cannot afford to take the health and safety of our citizens for granted,” Norris told the committee.

“Some of the increase will also go to the recently developed harassment prevention unit which focuses on educating workplaces and enforcing anti-harassment legislation. Harassment is clearly not acceptable, and our new government has designated $350,000 for the operation of the harassment prevention unit this year.”

Norris did not mention increasing workplace inspections or stricter enforcement of health and safety legislation.

Responding to a question from NDP MLA Pat Atkinson, Norris told the committee that preliminary records show that 3,658 workplace inspections were conducted in 2007-08. This is 37 more than in 2006-07, but considerably less than the high-water mark of 4,477 that were conducted in 2004-05.

In 2004-05 the Labour department initiated a new targeted inspection program that focused 2,200 inspections on higher-risk workplaces, including 261 workplaces with the highest number of injuries and illnesses.

The number of targeted inspections has fallen dramatically since then. In 2007-08 the OHS Division conducted 1,073 inspections targeted at workplaces with the highest number of injuries. Approximately 10 per cent of these inspections were focused on the health sector. The inspections resulted in 4,550 orders for improvement. The ministry’s latest annual report, the first with Norris as minister, does not indicate how many cessations of work were issued last year.

It appears that the number of workplace inspections has not been keeping pace with the increase in workers that are covered by the WCB.

The number of workers covered has risen from 305,103 in 1999 to 354,918 in 2007. The number of inspections during that time has gone from 2,900 to 3,658.

The year in which the most workplace inspections were conducted was 2004-05 when 4,477 were done. At the time the number of workers covered was 325,565. The number of workers covered has since increased 29,353 but the number of inspections has fallen by 819. Meanwhile the number of injuries reported each year continues to climb. It stands to reason there should be more inspections not less.

On September 19, 2003, the Government of Saskatchewan implemented the Action Plan for Healthy and Safe Workplaces to tackle the high number of workplace injuries and illness. The plan emphasized education and enforcement of workplace standards and included increasing inspections by 50%, from 3,000 to 4,500 per year and issuing more notices of contravention to ensure standards are met.

The government nearly achieved its goal conducting 4,477 workplace inspections in 2004-05 and issuing 4,808 contraventions, but in subsequent years has never come close to equaling or surpassing those numbers again.

Interestingly, the total number of injuries reported in 2004 decreased from the previous year going from 38,919 to 37,715, the lowest in quite a while.

In 2004 there was one inspection for every 72.7 workers covered by the WCB. In 2007 that ratio fell to 1:97. In order to get back to the earlier level the government would have to conduct approximately 4,880 inspections – or 1,222 more than what was accomplished in 2007.

Exactly how the WCB and OHS expect to eliminate workplace injuries without significantly increasing the number of inspections remains a mystery.

Unfortunately, 2008 already appears to be a lost cause. Quarterly statistics released by the WCB indicate that as of June 30 approximately 21,335 injuries have been reported. At this rate the year end total could surpass 42,000.

If Eberle wants to rid the province of its complacency and Norris really does care about workers’ health then they might start by getting serious about enforcing safety legislation and substantially increasing the number of inspections to help put a dent in the number of injuries reported each year.

There is little reason to believe, however, that the Saskatchewan Party government will act on these initiatives. Premier Brad Wall, as the MLA for Swift Current, once blamed “red tape and regulations” through the WCB, occupational health and safety and various pieces of labour legislation for driving “businesses and the jobs they create and the taxes they pay out of the province of Saskatchewan.” [Saskatchewan Hansard, June 20, 2000]

It’s unlikely that Wall’s views have changed much since then.

The Saskatchewan Party government named Eberle, a Humboldt lawyer and business owner, the new chair of the Workers’ Compensation Board on Mar. 7, 2008, replacing John Solomon who was fired without cause. Solomon was a former NDP MLA and MP before being appointed by the then-NDP government in 2001 in an open competition, which was not the case with Eberle.

Eberle has a long involvement with the Saskatchewan Party, having served as a member of the party’s management committee. Since 2003 he has donated approximately $4,890 to the party.

The minister (of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour Rob Norris) and the premier (Brad Wall) saw fit to appoint me to this position. Im humbled and honoured and Ill give it 120 per cent, Eberle told Leader-Post financial editor Bruce Johnstone. [New chairman of the WCB gets to work (Leader-Post, Mar. 10, 2008)]

Following Eberle
s appointment concerns were raised that an open competition for his position had not taken place. Deputy Premier Ken Krawetz seemed to brush those aside saying there is an urgency for the government to get new people in place to move forward with its agenda. [More changes coming to provincial agencies: Krawetz (Leader-Post, Mar. 14, 2008)]

What is the Saskatchewan Party
s agenda for the WCB? The partys 2007 election platform merely states that the agency will be reviewed to ensure that it is responsive to the needs of both workers and employers. What marching orders, if any, did Eberle receive from Norris and Wall? These questions remain unanswered.


The table below shows the number of workers covered by the WCB, the number of workplace inspections conducted by the province and the total number of injuries reported each year. The information is drawn from WCB and Saskatchewan Labour annual reports. The figures reported by the WCB are for the calendar year while the province is for the fiscal year ending Mar. 31. This makes year to year comparisons difficult.

# of workers covered

Workplace inspections

# of injuries reported

354,918 (2007)

3,658 (2007-08)

41,301 (2007)

338,898 (2006)

3,621 (2006-07)

40,922 (2006)

327,064 (2005)

4,079 (2005-06)

39,904 (2005)

325,565 (2004)

4,477 (2004-05)

37,715 (2004)

309,362 (2003)

3,242 (2003-04)

38,919 (2003)

306,518 (2002)

2,998 (2002-03)

39,821 (2002)

308,719 (2001)

2,837 (2001-02)

38,240 (2001)

306,469 (2000)

3,069 (2000-01)

37,717 (2000)

305,103 (1999)

2,900 (1999-00)

36,346 (1999)


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