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November 19, 2006
A tangled web
Albertans hurt on the job find the road to compensation
strewn with pitfalls By JEREMY
LOOME, EDMONTON SUN
MEDICINE HAT -- There's a door in Dan Darnell's kitchen that
explains why he's smiling. It's covered with a collage of family pictures:
special events like weddings and birthdays, and outings with family and
He needs the pictures, though he can hardly see them.
Paralysed on one side, 90% blind in both eyes, with just a tiny field of vision
out each corner, Darnell can smile anyway, because if he stands to the side of
the pictures, he can see a few at a time and fill in gaps in his damaged
He can see just how many people love and support him.
"That's one of the cool things since my brain surgery," he
says. "I don't remember a lot of things that I did wrong but I remember
everything that I did right. Except for my grandson Harley being born and
baptized and all that."
It's been nearly 20 years since Darnell was injured while
working on a rig to bring an oilwell into service, but he's reminded daily by
his white cane - "I call it 'the stick of power,' " he optimistically jokes -
by his inability to pick up his grandson and, most significantly, by regular
updates to his fight with the Alberta Workers' Compensation Board.
His case is far from cut-and-dried: while working on the
rig near the Old West town of Manyberries, Darnell was struck in the face by a
sheared-off compression spring bolt. Some 4,800 pounds per foot of pressure
drove the bolt through his cheekbone, destroying it, through his nasal cavity,
destroying it, and shattering his front teeth.
"I was on top of the wellhead, standing quite a few feet up
and from there I flew off and landed on my head," he says. "And the next thing
I remember was the boys dragging me by my shoulders across the lease. And the
only other thing I can see is a white spray, which is all the pieces of my
Though the oilpatch can still be tough toward workers who
try to claim compensation, it was worse back in the mid-'80s, as the industry
tried to recover from a worldwide slump and the national energy program.
Fearing he'd be blackballed, Darnell did what he figured any self-respecting
'rig pig' would do: he drove home, his head the size of a basketball.
Later that evening, at a walk-in clinic, a doctor tried to
stitch up his face and sent him to a dental surgeon. "All he could do was smear
plastic on the chunks of teeth because there was too much swelling to really do
Over the next six months, surgeons were contacted and his
face repaired, though he says it took two months before his head was even
X-rayed. Darnell went back to work, even though he'd occasionally black out and
fall down a flight of stairs and would sometimes have migraines so painful he
couldn't stand. He was eating 50 tablets of codeine a week.
"I was a mess. It was six months after that that I tried to
work at Safeway, because I figured it would be something different - it seemed
that whenever I did something physical the symptoms would just get worse."
The WCB helped Darnell get back to work, covering costs for
rehab at a chronic pain clinic. In 1991, he was informed he had a permanent
disability due to the pain, but that it was not sufficient to prevent him from
working. Given his solid experience in the 'patch, that was good news: Darnell
was making good money.
"But I was still having strange symptoms. Over time my side
would go numb for a day or two, and then it would go back again. And then, you
know, a month later it would be two days, then a week, two weeks, a month. But
it always came back."
Darnell didn't know it, but a blood vessel in his brain was
leaking. An MRI conducted at WCB expense in 1995 said his brain was fine and
that there was no lasting damage related to his accident. Lacking faith in the
results due to his symptoms, Darnell took easier jobs for less money, afraid of
repeating an incident in which he blacked out while at work and broke his leg
falling down stairs.
"In 1997, my left side went completely to sleep. I couldn't
feel anything. So they went back in and looked around, and they went back and
looked at the 1995 MRI and, sure enough, there was evidence there of bleeding.
And I read through my file and find that, back in '93 when they did a CT scan,
they found what they thought was a "calcification." But it wasn't, it was this
Though he was scared of what it could mean, Darnell's
doctors told him the bleeding could be causing his symptoms. By 2000, the leak
turned into a rupture, blinding Darnell and making the partial paralysis
permanent. Some 12 years after he was initially injured, he was prepped for
Far from worrying, Darnell expected that, as a worker
covered by the Workers' Compensation Board, everything would turn out OK: if
surgeons could fix him, he could head to the rigs. If they couldn't, he'd
adjust to life on compensation.
- - -
As Darnell was having holes drilled into his head to
relieve the pressure on his brain, two injured workers named Frank Pagnotta and
Ralph Teed were setting up a tent outside the Workers' Compensation Board in
Both were there to complain about treatment at the board's
hands. Though they had received benefits over the years for their injuries,
each gain required months and sometimes years of fighting with WCB case
managers, along with repeated trips to its appeal commissioners.
Injured workers across Alberta - and Canada, for that
matter - already had a loose-knit affiliation. By the time Pagnotta started the
protests in 1999, he was getting some support from them. By the time he and
Teed started pitching tents, other injured workers started showing up to join
It culminated in multiple rallies outside the WCB building
in downtown Edmonton, along with protests at the legislature. Politicians
started paying attention; the government called for two reviews of how workers
are treated, one dealing with WCB policies and staff satisfaction, while the
other dealt with the appeals process.
The latter was chaired by retired judge Samuel Friedman,
the former by Conservative backbencher Victor Doerksen, now a longtime member
of the Tory inner circle and a contender for that party's leadership. Both
spent months interviewing more than 1,300 injured workers and employers across
Alberta, before finally issuing reports.
Though it wasn't the first time critical reports had been
issued regarding the WCB, the level of condemnation was stunning. Some 59
recommendations were framed by one common understanding: that for years, the
WCB had maintained a "culture of denial" when it came to giving workers what
they were due under the Workers' Compensation Act.
Unlike government, though, the WCB is not electorally
accountable; though it is governed by provincial legislation and accountable to
the Human Resources Department financially, it receives all of its operating
capital from the workforce: employers are charged annual premiums and, in
exchange for coverage, workers give up the right to sue their employer,
co-workers or the board when injured.
Earlier studies in 1998 and 1991 had highlighted similar
problems and Pagnotta was familiar with the history. When asked whether the 59
recommendations would make a difference, he hedged his bets: "I'll believe it
when I see it."
The foremost recommendation was for a contentious claims
tribunal to review as many cases as necessary back to 1988, when the appeals
commission was established. It was not well received by the WCB, which rejected
about 50% of the recommendations overall and warned of dire consequences if up
to 24,000 old cases were reopened.
It also rejected proposals to pay for outside WCB advocates
to help workers, the appointment of appeals clerks to monitor timeliness during
the process, and increasing the time a worker has to appeal a WCB case decision
from one to two years. A slew of other suggestions also were shot down by the
board, although it qualified everything by saying it would abide by any
legislative changes the government might make.
The government itself seemed much more accommodating. It
backed the vast majority of the proposals, including the plan to review
contentious claims, and promised to establish a tribunal in 2002. It even set
up a task force, led by former Attorney General Jon Havelock, to figure out
"It really looked for a while there like they were taking
the whole thing seriously," injured worker Ralph Teed says now. "We thought
we'd won a major victory."
Almost immediately, there were rumblings that the task
force was not realistic. Almost all of the complaints centred around money, and
no one was suggesting the workers had been treated fairly. But the question of
who would pay the millions required to establish it arose immediately.
By September 2001, Finance Minister Pat Nelson had warned
the cost would have to come out of Human Resources' existing budget. By
November Human Resources and Employment Minister Clint Dunford was musing that
perhaps there wouldn't be retroactive payments to workers who'd been caught in
the "culture of denial." The board was warning it could cost anywhere from $117
million to $170 million just to process the claims, money it would get from
"Before we take the steps necessary to establish the
tribunal, we need to have a process in place that will be open and equitable
for all concerned," Dunford said that month. "I want to make sure that injured
workers understand we are moving towards establishing a process for reviewing
these claims, but there is still more work to be done.
"When you're an injured worker and you're trying to get
justification or restitution then any delay by any minister is the wrong thing
to do. What's important to me is that we do the right thing."
The WCB's then-CEO Mary Cameron, already under fire for a
salary and benefits package that topped $350,000, was even more encouraging.
"We're not putting this on the shelf. We're going to work on it," she said. "We
don't think cost should be a primary concern if it improves the system."
But it was.
When a southern Alberta rig worker hurt his head on the
job, it was the start of a revolving-door fight with the Workers' Compensation
Board that critics say typifies how the agency deals with some injured workers.