Alberta laid charges against nearly a dozen companies in the past two years and scored convictions against a dozen more, but critics say it’s not nearly enough to send a message of deterrence to accident-prone companies.
Labour Minister Ric McIver said he is still getting acquainted with his new portfolio, but plans to look into whether there’s more the province should be doing.
“That’s one of a myriad of things I intend to take a look at,” he said in an interview. “It’s worthy of review.”
With Alberta in the midst of another economic boom and workplace fatalities on the rise, questions are surfacing about whether the province is doing enough to prosecute cases against unsafe employers.
Last year, workplace deaths jumped to a near-record high of 188 in Alberta — and there have already been 120 deaths in the first 10 months of this year.
Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said Alberta prosecutes workplace safety violations at a much lower rate than British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
“Our prosecutions almost always have to do with fatalities,” McGowan said. “The message to employers is clear: Unless you actually kill someone, you will probably get nothing more than a slap on the wrist. And that’s troubling.”
Convictions in cases posted on the province’s website show the courts have levied nearly $4 million in fines against companies and their owners in 2013 and 2014. Two of the three convictions this year involved fatalities, while six of nine cases in 2013 involved a worker death.
Some provinces proceed with formal charges through the courts, while others levy administrative fines.
For example, British Columbia, which levies an average of 260 penalties annually and collects an average of $3.6 million in fines, has moved to toughen both penalties and enforcement in the wake of two sawmill explosions in 2012.
But B.C. seldom prosecutes cases in the courts as Alberta does.
Some critics want to see the penalties in Alberta increased if a case is successfully prosecuted. Under provincial OHS rules, companies can be fined up to $500,000 for a first offence and $1 million for a second offence, or a jail term of up to one year can be imposed.
Anne-Marie Williams, whose husband Randy was killed in 2008 on a Calgary construction site, said the companies responsible for her husband’s death declared bankruptcy and avoided fines totalling $2.4 million.
She said higher fines and more prosecutions won’t fix that problem — but jail time would.
“You can fine people all you want, but it’s jail time that makes people stand up and pay attention,” Williams said.
Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann said Alberta likes to tout itself as exceeding safety standards, but its Cadillac claims are dogged by Pinto performance.
“We don’t provide the resources to occupational health and safety to do their job to do more monitoring and investigation of these injuries,” Swann said. “We still don’t have the priority for safety and prevention in the workplace that we should have in 2014.”
Swann accused the PC government of “skimping” on the resources. He said inspectors who go into workplaces require the time and training to identify the root causes and make the systematic changes that are needed.
The ministry says it is doing just that, bolstering the number of occupational health and safety inspectors, investigators and technical advisers and increasing their training.
Staff has increased to 129 in 2013, up from 102 four years ago. By the end of this year, the ministry expects to have 42 of its staff certified as peace officers, who can write tickets.
The budget for OHS compliance — inspections, investigations and prosecutions — has also steadily increased from $22.4 million in 2012 to $27.4 million in 2014-15, although only $16 million has been spent so far this fiscal year.
But NDP critic David Eggen maintains Alberta has fewer OHS inspectors than the national average.
“When it comes to prosecutions, there doesn’t seem to be either the enforcement capacity, nor the deterrent of harsh penalties — and that’s a bad combination,” he said.
Ministry officials said steps have been taken to boost enforcement, beginning with a shuffle of prosecutors responsible for OHS files. The ministry is also starting to use new powers to levy administrative penalties, rather than going through lengthy court proceedings.
The ministry also has new powers to ticket workers on the spot for safety violations. To date, however, only five administrative penalties and 45 tickets have been issued, and 15 of those tickets have been quashed upon appeal, the ministry acknowledged.
Brookes Merritt, a spokesman for Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, rejected the AFL’s claims that the government only lays charges when someone dies.
“It’s patently untrue,” he said. “There’s plenty of examples of employers prosecuted for sins less egregious than having a worker fatality. We lay charges when employers have put workers at risk. We lay charges in all kinds of circumstances.”
Merritt said the ministry has also updated its creative sentencing guidelines and will be hiring an investigation specialist to liaise with Alberta Justice to track cases and draft creative sentences. Through creative sentences, fines paid by companies have been allocated to various prevention programs.
Convictions under Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 2013-2014:
- Rokstad Power Corp. (Gailbraith Power) convicted Sept. 2, 2014. Fined $325,000 after a worker was crushed when the power pole he was climbing fell onto him near Blairmore Sept. 10, 2011.
- StoneValley Contracting Ltd. convicted May 12, 2014. Fined $90,000 after a worker suffered serious injury when his hand became caught in a conveyor belt in Fort McMurray on March 2, 2011.
- I.D. Oilfield Services Ltd., convicted Jan. 16, 2014. Fined $275,000 after a worker died when a steel basket fell on him in Sundre Sept. 20, 2011.
- Sureway Construction Ltd. convicted Dec. 18, 2013. Fined $275,000 after a worker was crushed while installing a manhole in Edmonton on Nov. 17, 2010.
- Ensign Drilling Inc. convicted Nov. 25, 2013. Fined $325,000 after a worker was crushed to death by a suspended roughneck assembly near Lac La Biche on Nov. 9, 2010.
- XI Technologies Inc. convicted Oct. 31, 2013. Fined $275,000 after a worker was killed when he was struck in the head by a lever on a calf roping machine in Calgary on July 12, 2007.
- Les Structures De Beauce Inc. convicted Oct. 16, 2013. Fined $90,000 after a young worker suffered serious injuries when he fell from the roof of a commercial building being constructed in Edmonton Oct. 23, 2010.
- Eco-Industrial Park Inc. (formerly Worthington Properties) and Canadian Consolidated Salvage Ltd (operating as Clearway Recycling) convicted May 6, 2013. Eco-Industrial Park fined $35,750 and Canadian Consolidated Salvage fined $140,000 after a worker suffered serious injuries in a fall onto a pile of scrap metal in Edmonton Aug. 15, 2008. Workers at the site were also exposed to asbestos.
- Armtec Holdings Limited convicted March 4, 2013. Fined $300,000 after a worker was killed when struck in the head by mechanical equipment that detached from a concrete floor near Spruce Grove May 16, 2010.
- E.B Exteriors (1041383 Alberta Ltd.) convicted Feb. 25, 2013. Fined $275,000 after a worker was injured in a fall from a pumpjack scaffold in Calgary Jan. 23, 2010.
- Division 6 Contracting Ltd. convicted Feb. 5, 2013. Fined $86,250 after an apprentice carpenter was injured in a fall from a scaffold into an open excavation in Calgary Aug. 13, 2009.
- SSEC Canada Ltd. convicted Jan. 24, 2013. Fined $1.5 million after two workers died and two others were seriously injured when a tank they were assembling at the CNRL Horizon Site collapsed near Fort McMurray April 25, 2007. Three other workers suffered minor injuries.
Source: Government of Alberta
(The government’s website contains no information on appeals taken from convictions.)