Alberta launches 10-point plan to improve OHS enforcement

Following a much-publicized report from the Auditor General pointing out inefficiencies in Alberta’s occupational health and safety regulation and enforcement system, the Alberta employment and immigration ministry has unveiled a 10-point plan to ensure the province’s workplaces continue to become safer.

The thrust of the plan is to step up enforcement of Alberta’s occupational health and safety regulations. This will be done through such measures as increasing the number of OHS inspectors in the province, publishing the safety records of all Alberta companies, introducing a system of off-hours inspections and reviewing and potentially discontinuing workplace safety awards.

A concern with the old system of evaluating workplace safety, and one that carries over to the proposed new system, is the use of lost-time claims as the metric used to determine a safe workplace.

“Certainly the lost-time claims rate is one that we feel is a pretty significant measure as to how seriously a workplace takes its health and safety obligations,” said Barry Harrison, spokesperson for Alberta Employment and Immigration.

But such a position doesn’t adequately demonstrate how safe or unsafe a workplace really is, said Alan Quilley, president of Safety Results Ltd., an Alberta-based OHS consulting company.

“The problem is, and that’s fraught with problems and we know it’s fraught with problems” he said, “is if I’m an accommodating employer, my number (of lost-time claims) is going to be less than if I can’t accommodate.”

In effect, Quilley said counting claims will make a larger employer who can accommodate injured workers seem safer than a smaller employer who can’t, even though the reality could be that the larger employer disregards all safety procedures.

However, Harrison did say the province doesn’t focus solely on such claims, but also looks at disabling injury rates, which takes into account employers who are able to provide modified duties for their injured workers.

Another key component is the review and possible elimination of a slew of safety awards. The idea behind this plan is the fact nearly 1,000 employers have received such awards in the past year.

“If we are indeed recognizing the best of the best, then that number should be significantly lower,” Harrison said. “It kinda loses its meaning if you get a best safety performer award and you recognized that another 1,000 employers got that award.”

Quilley said he thinks this re-examination of the awards system is a good thing, because it gives the Alberta government a chance to correct its errors of the past when it handed out the awards based on the claims count.

It is the plan to increase the number of OHS officers and step up enforcement of OHS regulations that is perhaps the key component of these new initiatives. With a changing economy, many employers no longer follow the typical Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 work day. This makes the ability to perform inspections at any time necessary to emphasize the importance of safety.

“It doesn’t matter when a construction company of a roofer or whatever the industry is, whenever they are operating our inspectors could be dropping by,” said Harrison.

To the government’s intention to increase enforcement of its regulations, Quilley has a to-the-point reply: “Thanks for committing to do your job, is my comment.”

Furthermore, Quilley said he has had less-than-stellar experiences with OHS inspectors, recounting how, as safety director at one of Alberta’s largest employers, he only saw inspectors three times over a five-year span. This isn’t meant to disparage the system, he said, but instead an argument that an inspection system can’t work without inspections actually being performed.

The changes Alberta Employment and Immigration is bringing forward are a step in the right direction, but should not be seen as the be-all and end-all. It is also necessary for education to come with enforcement, Harrison pointed out. “There is some indication that there’s a need for us to perhaps find a better balance between education and awareness and compliance and enforcement.”

This is a sentiment that Quilley shares. “The true measure of safety is what you do about safety, not what the result is.”

Moving forward, Alberta Employment and Immigration will continue to monitor the changes to its OHS branch, to determine the progress being made and any further changes that may be necessary.

Alberta’s 10-point plan includes the following initiatives:
1.    Implementing updated compliance and enforcement procedures.
2.    Unveiling an easy-to-understand online template for posting safety records.
3.    Posting the safety records of all Alberta companies online.
4.    Reviewing the direction of Work Safe Alberta.
5.    Launching an internal software program improving data collection and reporting systems.
6.    Revising the “Employer Review Process” for companies with Certificates of Recognition and poor safety performance.
7.    Discontinuing Best Safety Performer Awards and reviewing awards programs.
8.    Hiring eight additional Occupational Health and Safety Officers.
9.    Reviewing all open orders identified by the Office of the Auditor General.
10.    Introducing a pilot project for weekend and evening worksite inspections.