Alberta unveils plan to strengthen safety inspections

Alberta unveils plan to strengthen safety inspections
Alberta will focus OHS inspections on Northern Alberta
The province of Alberta is beefing up occupational health and safety enforcement efforts by adding more OHS officers and focusing increased inspections on high-growth industries like oil and gas and construction. Overall, their three-year plan will see 30 new OHS officers hired by 2014.

With increased economic activity and growth forecast for Alberta, 30 new occupational health and safety (OHS) officers will be hired over the next three years, according to a statement released by the province.

The officers will be responsible for conducting on-the-spot company inspections, educating employers and workers on OHS legislation and investigating serious incidents. The changes will also see a greater focus on Northern Alberta, which has and will likely continue to be an area of particular economic and industrial growth.

Barrie Harrison, the spokesperson for Alberta Occupational Health & Safety, says the changes will help prepare the province for the economic growth to come and ensure that health and safety aren't lost in the shuffle.

"The north is where it's at right now in terms of economic activity," he says. "All of our economic indicators tell us that we're just on the verge of recovering from this recession, and we want to make sure that we're proactive when it comes to responding from an OHS perspective— that's why we're now announcing the additional officers added to the ranks."

In addition to the 16 officers hired in the 2010-11 fiscal year, another 10 will be added for each of the next three years. By 2014, the province will have 132 OHS officers, a 55-per-cent increase from the 86 officers employed as of early 2010.

"It's important that we have as much of a presence as possible," adds Harrison. "We still ensure that we have a fairly heavy emphasis when it comes to the education and awareness component of occupational health and safety, but there's always a need to have the enforcement angle as well. That's why it's so important to make sure we have the manpower to be able to do that." 

The statement also indicated that over the coming weeks, occupational health and safety enforcement, inspections and investigations in Alberta will be divided into three regions instead of two. The traditional regions of north and south, divided near Red Deer, will become north, central and south, providing a greater focus in northern Alberta— the site of major economic activity, particularly in the oil and gas and construction sectors.

Harrison believes the reorganization of coverage regions will make enforcement more practical and efficient going forward, which will ultimately benefit the growing number of companies operating in the north.

"It cuts down significantly on travel time for many officers," he says. "Two of the ten new officers will be in our Fort McMurray office. Sometimes, when there's enough activity up north and enough incidents for us to follow up on, we've had to send officers from the Edmonton office, which is a significant amount of travel. Increasing our manpower in Fort McMurray has an added benefit to the offices, and to the companies in the north, as well."

Speaking to the Edmonton Chapter of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering, Alberta Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk had this to say about the changes: “This will further reinforce my resolve to ensure compliance of the OHS Act and enforcement where needed. I hope this sends a strong message to any company or worker in Alberta who feels the law doesn’t apply to them. That’s 132 officers delivering a message that no company [or] individual is above the law.”

Harrison notes the minister makes a good point about the importance of enforcement in conjunction with education and prevention.

"Many companies respond very well to education," he notes. "They understand the importance of health and safety. But there's always one company out there that feels that, for whatever reason, they may be above the law, and that's where the minister feels enforcement needs to come in."

With these changes, though, Harrison is confident the ministry is putting itself in a good position to respond to the demands of a growing workforce and plan responsibly for the future.

"We feel that this is more than keeping pace with what we feel growth will be over the next number of years," he says. "Again, combining that with education will hopefully be the right combination; and if not, the ministry will continue to make revisions."

The ministry spokesperson stressed the agency will take all steps necessary to ensure the effectiveness of its health and safety programs. "That's our job— to educate, enforce, and make sure those rules are followed so we don't have injuries or fatalities."