Worker deaths hit all-time high in Alberta

National-level data obtained by Corporate Knights shows that 2013 was the most fatal year on record for workers in Alberta, where 21 per cent of all 902 workplace deaths in the country took place.

Only one other province, Nova Scotia, saw an increase in fatalities last year.

“To know that it’s that high, I’m shocked,” said Bill Stewart, a business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 955 in Alberta.

In total, Alberta saw 188 workplace deaths across all of its industries, according to new data compiled by the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada. But construction was by far the most dangerous, accounting for 76 deaths. Manufacturing and government services followed with 27 and 23 deaths, respectively. Mining, quarrying and oil well-related jobs resulted in 17 deaths last year.

The number of construction work fatalities fell in every other province, except in Nova Scotia, which remained steady with three reported deaths. The national trend was also downward in mining, quarrying, oil wells and government services, making Alberta an anomaly when it comes to fatalities in those industries.

Newfoundland and Alberta also had the highest number of worker deaths on a population-adjusted basis out of all of the provinces (excluding the territories). While Ontario had the highest number of fatalities of all the provinces, on a population-adjusted basis it had one of the lowest rates.

Alberta and Newfoundland were also the only provinces to report an increase in time-loss injury claims, which on a national basis fell in 2013 to 241,934.

[highcharts chart=’5689′ performer=’ALL’ measurement=’Number of worker fatalities per 100,000 people’ order_field=’Number of worker fatalities per 100,000 people’ order=’DESC’]

What’s going on? One can only speculate, but experts agree that an influx of new workers, brought on by the oil sands boom, is a perfect recipe for workplace injuries and fatalities.

Alberta had the highest employment rate in the country at 69.3 per cent last September, which was significantly higher than the national average at 61.6 per cent. The labour force increased by 5,000 people in that month alone.

Steward said this increase in employment means that employers requiring skilled trades are having a hard time finding experienced workers.

New workers are also more likely to get hurt or die on the job, with most fatalities happening within the first two weeks, said Peter Sturm of Sturm Consulting, a Toronto-based company that specializes in health, safety and risk consulting.

Alberta Fatality TableMany of these new hires are likely “green,” added Stewart, referring to the green hand sticker that many workers in Alberta are required to wear on both sides of their hardhats for their first three months on the job.

Established by the Canadian Petroleum Council in 2001, the Green Hands program aims to reduce injuries among new and inexperienced workers by clearly identifying them so that co-workers do not make potentially dangerous assumptions about their experience or skills. The program can also be used for workers returning after time away from their jobs to signal that they may not be familiar with new safety policies or technologies.

More experienced workers can volunteer to wear a gold hand on their hardhats to identify themselves as workers who have knowledge of the company’s safety program and to whom “green hands” can turn to for advice.

Peer-to-peer mentorship is one of the most important aspects of workplace safety, said Sturm. It creates an environment where more experienced workers have a responsibility to make newer workers understand the hazards, and where newer workers can ask for advice, he said.

Another important part of workplace safety on construction sites is having a pre-shift meeting where supervisors explain the hazards on the site that day, said Sturm. These “tail box” meetings are important to have every day because things can change quickly on a construction site. A floor could have been added or workers could be doing a completely different task from the day before, he said.

“There is an awful lot of new people coming into the workforce [in Alberta] that don’t have a background in construction or mining. And, quite frankly, we have to watch out for them,” said Stewart.

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