Auditor General: Alberta Isn’t Tough Enough on Workplace Safety Violators

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Criticism of government’s efforts to ensure the safety of workers is common. Critics are typically workers, labour unions, the general public, the media and families of workers injured or killed on the job. But criticism rarely comes from within government itself. On April 14, the acting auditor general of Alberta released a report that contains scathing criticisms of the province’s enforcement of its OHS laws, especially its lax approach toward repeat offenders. Here’s an overview of this report, including the auditor general’s evaluations of the Department of Employment and Immigration’s workplace safety efforts and recommendations for improving workplace safety throughout the province. (Click here for the full report. The workplace safety section begins on page 36.)

THE REPORT

Key Criticisms: The report’s key criticisms are focused on four areas:

            Repeat offenders. An audit found that a group of 63 high-risk employers consistently fail to comply with orders issued by OHS officers for safety violations. But the Department doesn’t have a system in place for dealing with repeat offenders. For example, there’s no “decision ladder” for escalating compliance action from promotion and education to enforcement and fines. To make matters worse, this group’s “Disabling Injury Rate” is three to four times the provincial average.

            OHS orders. OHS officers issue stop-work or stop-use orders when they find safety violations. Such orders shouldn’t be lifted or suspended until an officer confirms that the employer has corrected the problem and is now in compliance. However, the audit found that some orders issued to repeat offenders were suspended only to be reinstated in the next fiscal year. This practice skews compliance statistics. And for most of the suspended orders that were later reopened, the employers never addressed the original violations.

            Proactive inspections. The Department has a program that targets specific, high-risk industries for “proactive” inspections (as opposed to inspections in response to an incident or injury). But this program doesn’t have clear guidance on how to target employers in these industries for inspection. For example, employers may be selected based on location and not safety record. In addition, nearly all proactive inspections occur between Monday and Friday and during regular business hours, although a significant percentage of incidents happen at night and on weekends.

            Certificate of Recognition program. The Certificate of Recognition (COR) program rewards employers that implement appropriate OHS systems with rebates on their workers’ comp premiums. In addition, employers rely on their CORs to bid on contracts with major companies in areas such as construction and oil and gas. However, many repeat offenders still held valid CORs despite having open or suspended OHS orders—and thus still got their rebates and were able to bid on contracts requiring a COR.

Recommendations: The report contains recommendations for addressing each of the above problem areas:

            Step up enforcement against repeat offenders. The Department must do more to enforce compliance by employers who persistently fail to comply with OHS laws. For example, it needs to establish clear and specific criteria for when and how to take specific steps when employers fail to comply with OHS orders. It also needs to use all of the tools at its disposal to enforce compliance, such as getting court orders when appropriate.

            Track and confirm compliance with orders. The Department needs a system to track and confirm compliance with OHS orders. Such a system will let it identify and act on repeat offenders. It also needs to ensure that reinspections are done to ensure compliance with an OHS order before the order is lifted or suspended.

            Improve employer selection for inspections. Although the process for targeting industries for inspections is fine, the process for targeting employers within those industries must be improved. Selection of employers and scheduling of inspections should be based on risk, not factors such as location.

Ensure only qualified employers have CORs. The report notes that there has been progress in assuring quality in the COR program but more is needed. For example, although the Department has quality review systems in place, they need improvement to ensure that CORs are issued only to qualified employers. And once an employer is issued a COR, there needs to be proper follow-up to ensure that it maintains its qualifications for the certificate.

ANALYSIS

Alberta has one of the highest worker fatality rates in Canada (behind only Ontario and Québec). For example, in 2008, there 166 workplace fatalities; in 2007, there were 154. In response to statistics such as these, the government introduced the Work Safe Alberta Strategy, which outlines the province’s specific objectives for improving workplace safety. But actions speak louder than words. Based on the auditor general’s report, the government clearly isn’t actually doing enough. In fact, the province has taken actions that seem to undermine its avowed plan to increase OHS compliance.

For example, many people believe that releasing a list of the province’s worst safety offenders would pressure those employers to step up their OHS compliance. But Alberta’s employment minister has refused to release a list of the employers in the province with the worst safety records. Why? The Department claims that the privacy laws bar the list’s release. Since the auditor general’s report has come out, though, the government says that it will release the list as soon as it’s assured that it can legally do so. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath.