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Numbers don't lie - or do they? The province claims the lowest workplace injury rate in years, but WCB stats say the opposite

September 10, 2006

Politically, there's safety in numbers. Ask an injury expert about Alberta's rosy workplace safety rates and he'll tell you why - numbers can lie. Corpses don't, says Dr. Louis Francescutti, with the Royal Alexandra Hospital. "We can't have the number of injuries going down in the province as the number of fatalities goes up," he said. "That just doesn't make sense."

But to go by the provincial government's statistics, that's what has happened. Alberta Human Resources claims the number of workplace injuries has declined 30% from 1994 to 2004 thanks to a program called Work Safe Alberta. At the same time, stats from the national Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada show the number of fatalities rising from 74 to 124 over the same period of time. They went up further, to 143, in 2005.

When the government announced last fall -- and reiterated last month -- that the workplace injury rate in Alberta had reached its lowest in a decade, they used a statistic called "lost-time claims," which is based on lost work past the day of the injury.

The rate of 2.6 claims per 100 full-time jobs was, indeed, lower than any time that decade. That prompted Human Resources Minister Mike Cardinal to claim that "The Work Safe Alberta initiative has significantly reduced Alberta's workplace injury rate."

Other press releases from the department claimed the program had lowered serious accidents by nearly 30% over that time.

Statistics from the Workers Compensation Board, however, show injuries needing medical attention have increased 15%, from the decade's low of 92,629 in 2002 to more than 108,000 last year.

Meanwhile, the number of companies moving employers from regular duties to "modified work" while injured rose 54% from 16,240 to 35,000 last year.

In fact, using its stats, the government claims working in the oilpatch, with a rate of 1.1 lost-time claims per 100 jobs, is safer than being a teacher, at 2.7; a businessman, at 1.7; or a retail worker, with a rate of 2.5.

"We see a lot of guys coming into the emergency department on weekends after a week working in the tar sands and they come out with cuts all over their hands that have become infected," said Dr. Francescutti. "When you ask them why they didn't come in earlier, they'll tell you they'd get fired.

"It's gone on for as long as I can remember. Companies like to pretend everyone's OK, and a lot of companies require near-perfect safety records from their subcontractors." The reasoning is simple: the fewer lost-time claims companies have, the less they pay in premiums to the Workers Compensation Board the next year.

Everyone in industry knows it goes on, critics agree, but no one considers the long-term ramifications of "safe hours" stats that are bogus.

"What ends up happening when people see low numbers with respect to accidents is that there is less of an emphasis on safety," said Dr. Francescutti. "A lot of the safety officers for the companies are very aggressive when a worker is hurt and will follow them to the medical aid station or emergency department and do whatever they can do to make sure the physician doesn't file a WCB report. "What I do when they come here a week later is I fill out the form and let them deal with it."

Human Resources Minister Mike Cardinal said he will look into the issue. "It's something I will look at further, to see if the way we keep stats is sufficient," he said.

But Cardinal is well aware of how the system works, says Jason Foster, with the Alberta Federation of Labour. His agency has lobbied Cardinal's department to change its tune.

"Some stakeholder groups have been pushing hard for change, and we're just finally noticing officials in the department starting to acknowledge that the LTC measurement doesn't work. The problem is we can't get their political masters - in this case, Mike Cardinal - to pay any attention."

Workers accept the system because they don't want to risk their job and because they don't lose pay by playing along, said Nick Stewart, president of Steelworkers Local 1207.

"We've seen many cases where a worker who has been injured is brought into work just to staple paper so that they won't count against the injury statistics," he said. "And an employer can then shirk responsibility for conditions that cause accidents by effectively claiming their workplace is safer."

Stewart could only laugh at the suggestion that the oilpatch is Alberta's safest workplace. "Yeah, right. Talk to any oilpatch worker and find out how many co-workers they've got who are wearing casts, or even just being paid to sit in a bunkhouse.

"Right now, the big problem is the money. Workplaces can just buy off the worker, period." Until workplace safety is properly addressed, says NDP labour critic Ray Martin, the only check against the rising tide of injuries will be the health of the economy itself.

"It is absolutely dangerous to have a perception put out there by a minister that safety is moving in the right direction when it is not," said Martin. "You know the old saying: statistics don't lie, but liars use statistics."

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