Put safety before profit

The axiom that business works best when it’s left alone is often seen as key to free enterprise — but the laissez faire framework doesn’t always ensure worker safety. On Saturday, 75 people walked in Red Deer as part of the annual Steps for Life program, which raises money to support families who must cope with the aftermath of workplace accidents.

The axiom that business works best when it’s left alone is often seen as key to free enterprise — but the laissez faire framework doesn’t always ensure worker safety.

On Saturday, 75 people walked in Red Deer as part of the annual Steps for Life program, which raises money to support families who must cope with the aftermath of workplace accidents.

The walk, and a number of other local events like mock disasters, are intended to bring workplace safety into sharp focus during North American Occupational Safety and Health Week.

In Alberta, we could do with more than subtle nudges.

We need to look at workplace safety long and hard, particularly as economic activity ramps up.

According to Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, Alberta has fewer health and safety inspectors than any other province, per capita (30 more are being hired by the province).

The province is also not keen on using the law to enforce workplace safety, according to the AFL. The federation says that Alberta pursues just 12 to 15 prosecutions against employers for workplace safety violations a year. B.C. pursues 75 to 100 such prosecutions and Ontario can see 1,500 to 2,000 cases a year.

The federation has asked Jonathan Denis, Alberta’s new minister of Justice and Solicitor General, to more aggressively prosecute to encourage workplace safety. The AFL specifically wants Alberta to take advantage of a Criminal Code amendment passed in 2003 that allows corporations and corporate managers to be found “criminally liable if they fail to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public on their worksites.”

Quality corporate leadership understands the intrinsic value of workplace safety. Unsafe practices can speed processes, but shortcuts also inevitably lead to injury to workers, and damage to equipment and reputations. Accidents cost money, make recruitment difficult, and — most importantly — can destroy lives.

Most businesses operate with these consequences in mind, and ensure safety is a priority.

But enough do not that the stakes are high.

Lost time can also, ultimately, destroy businesses.

And the long road to such a disaster is often littered with injury, death, expense and fragile worker morale.

In the industries that are so essential to Alberta’s success, the potential for such disaster is always near if workers aren’t properly trained, if workplace sites are not properly supervised, if equipment is not properly maintained, and if procedures are not ardently adhered to.

But there is more to safety than establishing good protocol and instilling a culture of care.

According to Health Canada, overwork and non-standard work schedules are leading causes of injury.

More than 13 per cent of Canadian workers are overworked (2,400 hours per year or 46 hours a week), and oil and gas is the leading industry when it comes to long hours.

Long hours are linked to higher incidents of injury, lower morale, deteriorating general health, psychological disorders and anxiety.

Shift work similarly ramps up the risk.

About 30 per cent of Canadians do shift work, and fully half of the part-time labour force works non-standard shifts, according to Health Canada.

The federal agency says shift workers have increased risk of chronic conditions (lack of sleep, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders). The risk of injuries increases significantly for shift workers, as does the severity of fatigue (the two go hand in hand). And job strain is increasingly prevalent among shift workers.

In Alberta, as we harvest our resources and race to satisfy markets when they are hot, long hours and shift work become the norm.

Yet we do relatively little to manage and understand the factors that raise risk in Alberta workplaces.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick all have fewer than 15 researchers looking at the issue of occupational health. There are 156 such researchers at Ontario institutions, by comparison, according to Health Canada.

Certainly there are industry lobby groups that make safety a priority, like the Alberta Construction Safety Association, a non-profit organization funded and directed by industry.

And we are making marginal gains in protecting lives on the job: 123 Albertans were killed on the job in 2011, compared to 136 in 2010.

But as we race to revive our economy, and to provide the services and infrastructure to allow it to grow, we will increasingly take risks.

And sometimes the pursuit of profit overtakes good sense.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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