JAMES MAY

Perilous Trades

Why do so many young Albertans become workplace casualties?

By Alison Azer

On the day of the accident, an epic snowstorm swept through central Alberta. Weather reports discouraged travel except in emergencies. defeated cars dotted the ditches between Red deer and Edmonton. Behind the wheel of his aging Suburban half-ton, Doug Lancaster found himself in a desperate dilemma. Treacherous conditions urged him to slow down; the panic in his wife Grettie’s eyes begged him to speed up. Time mattered.

An hour earlier, they had received a call from Calgary-based Pillar Oilfield Projects, the employer of Grettie’s son, John Hennessy-Moore. The caller delivered the news with delicate simplicity: “There’s been an accident.” details were sketchy. John had been struck in the head by a steel beam and his injuries were life-threatening. An air ambulance was taking him to Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra hospital. Grettie and Doug were to come immediately. Grettie remembers clutching a wallet-sized photo of her only child and whispering, over and over, “hold on, son, I’m coming.”

An outgoing, bright 18-year-old, John had recently graduated from high school with a certificate in apprentice pipe-fitting. In the fall of 2004, he had accepted a job with Pillar, upgrading the pipes at husky Energy’s Lloydminster plant. The money was fantastic, and John loved the work.

The last time he visited his mother in Red deer, four days before the accident, John told her he planned to work for a few years, start his own workplace safety company, buy a house and settle down. When he left to head back to Lloydminster for the work week, Grettie told him to be careful. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he replied. “Safety is my middle name.”

Lying in the hospital bed on December 4, 2004, John had no discernible brain activity. His skull was wrapped in a turban of bandages, his eyes and nose swollen and bloody. Grettie spent the night at her son’s side, stroking his hand, singing the lullabies she’d sung for him when he was a child. Early the next morning, a neurological examination concluded that John was indeed brain-dead. Arrangements were made for the transfer of his healthy organs. John died; five strangers lived.

Like most industrial accidents, John’s was the product of an algorithm of misfortune, error and wild-card variables which, more than two years later, are still not entirely clear to his family. They know that court proceedings between the company and the Attorney General’s office (the accident took place on the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminster’s border) are underway and a resolution is imminent—insofar as there can ever be a resolution to losing a child in a preventable workplace accident.

Eager to work, thousands of young people fit pipes, pour coffee, dig ditches, run machines.

Every day, hundreds of young people like John Hennessy-Moore enter Alberta’s labour force. Eager to work, they fit pipes, pour coffee, dig ditches, run machines. Filling a gap in a province desperate for workers, young people are increasingly accepting jobs with little training or supervision. Responsibilities loom large, but so do wages and benefits. When these youth choose work, however precarious, over advanced education or vocational training, they often promise it’s just for a year… well, maybe two. But the workplace carries enough brute force to mangle, maim, bury, burn and crush.

A disturbing number of workers aged 15 to 24 in this province and across the country are the victims of occupational injury and fatality. Statistics are available—with caveats and conditions—that form curves, trend lines, and analyses. Some numbers are reported raw, others as a rate, and still others as a proportion; cynics might describe it as statistical smoke and mathematical mirrors. For example, the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) and the Alberta department of Employment, Immigration & Industry (AEII) count fatalities differently. According to AWCBC, 12 young Albertans were killed in 2005, 13 in 2004 and eight in 2003. AEII reports the same figures for 2003 and 2004, but only nine deaths in 2005. The department later added one to the count, raising it to 10. An AEII representative explained the discrepancies in an e-mail: “The difference between our number of 10 and WCB’s number of 12 is that different methodology is used. One goes by the age at the time of the incident, and the other goes by age at the time of death. For example, someone could be in a coma through a birthday and then pass away. We are working toward using common criteria so these issues don’t arise.”

According to the AWCBC, in 2003, 55,380 young Canadians, 7,317 of whom were Albertans, suffered time-loss injuries. In 2004, figures dropped to 54,051 nationally and 7,106 provincially. In 2005, the national figure dropped again to 52,920, while the provincial number rose to 7,197. AEII adds proportionality to the mix: in 2005, young Albertans accounted for 20.4 per cent of workplace injuries although they represented only 17.5 per cent of those in employment. In 2006, the numbers were 23.4 per cent and 17.6 per cent respectively.

The Alberta Workers’ Health Centre (AWHC), a registered charity with financial support from unions, individuals and businesses, seeks to improve the health and safety of Alberta’s workplaces and help those who have suffered from work- place injuries and illness. Executive director Kevin Flaherty, a sociologist by training, is no stranger to explaining societal issues through statistical trends. He comes across as the kind of guy who’s as drawn to the big picture as he is to the small details. He’s got a great laugh, a quick wit and a relaxed sense of self. But there’s nothing easygoing about his commitment to reducing the risks for young Alberta workers.

Flaherty bristles when terms like “accident-prone,” “bravado” and “rookie” are used to explain the disproportionate number of young workers who fall victim to unsafe workplaces. “It’s a blame-the-worker ideology,” he says. “In large measure, these are kids who want to do a good job. But if workplaces are risky, they are by definition taking risks working there.” Indeed, research from the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health shows that workers of any age are four times more likely to be injured in the first month of work than they are after they’ve been on the job for at least a year. According to the results of the study, a 16-year-old with a year of experience behind him is 25 per cent as likely to be injured as a 40-year-old in his first month of work. Experience matters more than age.

Jason Foster, director of policy analysis at the Alberta Federation of Labour, believes that rates of injuries and fatalities are not suitable proxies for gauging the safety of Alberta’s workforces. “I worry when figures are reported with the impartiality of agriculture exports or oil production. Of course it’s better to have six fatalities in one year instead of the 10 that occurred the year before—but does this mean that four lives were saved?” he asks. “I have a hard time believing that Alberta workplaces are getting safer—and isn’t safety the ultimate goal?”

Foster believes that the root cause of unsafe workplaces lies in the emphasis on production and profit. “We have never been successful in weaving health and safety into the basic business model. Sure, it may get inserted somewhere or grafted on if it’s politically expedient to do so, but it’s never been at the core of running a successful, reputable business in this province.”

The Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta is legislated to administer the workers’ compensation system for the province. Employers can reduce their premiums—already said to be the lowest in the country—by improving their safety performance and by developing a modified work plan. The first directive can be achieved by participating in the Partners in Injury Reduction Program, successfully implementing a basic workplace health and safety management system, and qualifying for a certificate of recognition. The second directive is linked to getting injured employees back to work as soon as possible. So if a forklift operator breaks her leg and sits in front of the TV for a month, the employer’s premiums will go up. If she returns to work and sits at a computer doing data entry, the employer’s premiums stay the same.

Grettie Hennessy lost her son, John, when he was struck by a steel beam at Husky Energy’s Lloydminster plant. (James May)

But critics charge that Alberta’s approach to occupational health and safety is too much carrot and too little stick. Foster says that while there has never been a golden age of workers’ rights in this province, the 1990s made the 1980s look like the good old days; 1991 and 1992 were particularly terrible. First, Alberta companies pushed forward an agenda that favoured voluntary compliance and self-regulation. Then, fresh off his leadership victory, Premier Ralph Klein dismantled the Department of Occupational Health & Safety and rolled it into the Department of Labour (which would later morph into the Department of Human Resources & Employment and then into the Department of Employment, Immigration & Industry). Programs were cut, staff were laid off, and by the end of the decade the government was spending 40 per cent less (adjusted for inflation) on occupational health and safety than it did in 1990.

And the number of prosecutions dropped rather significantly. From 1985 to 1988, the average was 39 prosecutions a year. Over the next five years, the annual average was 10. In 1997, there was only one. Since 2000, with the hiring of prosecutors dedicated to health-and-safety cases, and with an increase in maximum fines and sentences, the situation has gotten marginally better. Alberta Justice’s Occupational Health & Safety prosecution unit is understandably reluctant to comment on resource issues: having two prosecutors for the entire province doesn’t make for good PR. However, the unit recently doubled its resources by hiring two new prosecutors.

Tamara Trull is one of the original two prosecutors. It’s hard not to hear the sincerity in her voice when she talks about her work. She’s clever and caring, if a little cautious about what she says when it comes to the numbers and dollars that make up Alberta’s prosecution purse. But ask her to comment on safety issues, victim impact statements or alternative sentencing, and she’s almost giddy with passion.

The provision for alternative sentencing came into effect in December 2002 with changes to the Occupational Health & Safety Act. According to Trull, it creates the opportunity for a broad range of sentencing options that see fines directed toward specific charitable activities or public goods. “Before the Act changed, fines collected for workplace infractions went directly into the government’s general revenues. now we can direct fines toward workplace safety, emergency services and worker advocacy programs.”

Erik Dyment died in July 2005 when a truck box he was sandblasting fell on him. He was 14, and employed by the Reynolds museum in Wetaskiwin. “In talking with the Dyment family, we learned that Erik had dreams of becoming a pilot,” says Trull. “So we proposed a penalty that would include the donation of a large tract of land on which to build an emergency air strip.” In December 2006, a Provincial Court judge handed the car museum and its owner, Stanley George Reynolds, the maximum penalty of $500,000: a $5,000 fine, plus 13 hectares of land valued at $495,000.

Other alternative sentences have included donations to hospital burn units, the STARS air ambulance, and the Job Safety Skills Society. Trull’s latest coup is an alternative sentence worth $45,000 to fund a DVD that will form part of a much-needed informational package for victims of workplace incidents.

According to a march 2007 provincial government news release, 2006 set a number of records for monetary penalties. Seven companies and three individuals were found guilty of infractions for a record total of $1,534,500 in penalties, 75 per cent of which was in alternative sentences. The highest penalty to a company was against the Reynolds museum for Dyment’s death, and the highest penalty to an individual was against Jeffrey Clements, operator of Reality Flooring, who was charged $75,000 because his employee was seriously burned while working with a solvent.

In 2002, the minister of Alberta Human Resources & Employment (AEII’s predecessor) challenged Albertans to reduce workplace injuries by 40 per cent by the end of 2004. The challenge was accepted by provincial industry, safety and labour leaders. According to AEII spokesman Barrie Harrison, the target was not reached, although improvements continue to be made.

The AWHC’s Kevin Flaherty has a top 10 list of things that could be done, almost immediately and with relatively little money, to improve the condition of Alberta workplaces. Topping the list is the introduction of mandatory joint health and safety committees with representation from management and labour. While all other provinces have such committees, they are voluntary in Alberta. “When governments in other jurisdictions mandate employers to establish joint committees we see injury and fatality rates drop, employee morale improve, and fewer production stoppages,” he says. “Workplaces need checks and balances, input from diverse sources, and an empowered, engaged work force. Even Adam Smith, the father of the free market, favoured appropriate regulation on industry.”

This fall, the province will launch a workplace safety campaign targeting young workers, particularly those aged 15 to 19. Six videos are being produced, with storylines ranging from a shoe store sales clerk falling off a ladder, to a gas station attendant seriously burned by a cleaning solvent. According to Barrie Harrison, young people in focus groups say the campaign is on the right track. “When we showed them story boards for the deli worker who lost a finger and the short- order cook burnt by the deep fryer, the participants said that not only did they think it was possible, but that many of them had witnessed similar incidents,” he says. The campaign, expected to cost $850,000, will run in venues that young people frequent. The videos will  be screened as movie trailers. “We want to encourage young people to ask questions like where the first aid kit is and what happens if I get hurt, and to know that they can’t be fired for exercising their workplace rights,” says Harrison.

Dr. Curtis Breslin, a scientist with the Institute for Work & Health, encourages policy-makers to support young people’s gradual introduction to the workplace.

“It could be like the gradual driving licence program,” he says. “Why can’t we do something similar with workplaces— perhaps by further restricting the types of equipment young people can operate, the hours they work and the supervision they’re given?”

Breslin credits European systems, especially Germany’s, with preparing youth for the workplace through structured apprenticeships, co-op placements and safety training while they are still in school.

Kevin Flaherty agrees that the education system is an untapped resource. “Young people show up at work unsure of the rules, lacking experience and not knowing who to trust. When they’re told to just get the job done by the same people who say that they’ll look out for their safety, it’s a mixed message with potentially disastrous consequences.”

The Alberta Workers’ Health Centre uses the power of narrative to educate young people about their workplace rights. Work Plays is a dramatic production dealing with safety, sexual harassment and employment standards. Since 2003, it has been seen by over 140 high-school audiences. The play elicits stories from the students themselves.

“After a performance in a small town in central Alberta, two young guys told us about a job they had removing insulation from a house that was built in the asbestos heyday,” says Flaherty. “When they asked their supervisor whether they should be wearing protective clothing, he told them not to worry—at least they were putting the insulation into garbage bags before taking it to the dump.”

“What about the injuries that don’t show up for decades? There will be no trace to the source.”

Flaherty worries that this kind of hazard goes unnoticed. “When workplace incidents are immediate, bloody and gory, they at least get media attention. But what about the injuries that don’t show up for years, even decades? The asbestosis, the carcinomas, the repetitive strains? Some of these kids will develop serious illnesses later in life and there will be no trace to the source.

In Late 2003, 24 year-old Karl Stunt of Ottawa accepted a part-time job at Banff ’s Sunshine Village, where he made $8.50 an hour and had the time of his life—a last hurrah before heading back home and returning to university.

August 31, 2004, was a lovely summer day. Karl had been working with an apprentice mechanic in a maintenance cage repairing the lift.

In the late afternoon, planning to call it a day, they came down the hill toward the lift station. The cage had a peculiar flaw: a steel platform had to be pulled down as they descended, or it would strike the overhead machinery in its path. Karl was unaware of this. As they swung into the station, a metal bar smashed Karl in the head.

He died six days later at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital—on Labour Day, no less. The apprentice mechanic was fired shortly thereafter.

Karl’s possessions were shipped back to his parents. Among them were eight rolls of undeveloped film. Karl’s father, Bill, and mother, Renata, processed the film and pored over the pictures documenting the last few months of their son’s life.

In one of the photos, Karl’s sunglasses are propped on his forehead. His black hoodie is branded with the Sunshine Village logo and taglined “STAFF 03-04.” He’s got a can of mountain ale in one hand; his other hand rests on the shoulder of a beautiful young woman. His whole life is ahead of him.

The limitation period for filing charges is two years less a day from the date of the accident. In the Stunt case, four charges were filed under the Occupational Health & Safety Act within days of the limit.

The months that followed have been peppered with delays, change of counsel and abandoned plea bargains. The trial is set to begin on May 1, 2008.

“It’s unbelievably cruel to be left in this limbo for so long,” says Bill. “The insurmountable grief of losing a child is compounded by the callousness of a corporation that denies us any resolution.”

He contends that by underfunding enforcement and refusing to legislate joint workplace safety committees, the Alberta government keeps guilty companies out of the courtrooms. “The government needs royalties from the oil fields, taxes from developers, and export potential from resource industries—and votes from all of them. It turns a blind eye to corporate negligence and lets young people like Karl pay for the Alberta Advantage with their lives,” he says. “Sure, Alberta’s economy is booming, but it’s on the backs of young, untrained workers.”

Bill hopes his son’s employer is more safety-conscious today. He looks forward to the day that the case is settled and he can devote his energy to workplace safety advocacy.

He also hopes that he can help parents who find themselves in his unenviable position. “They have no idea, of course; (they) never think that it could happen to their children,” he says. “We hear about young people getting killed at work and we shudder at the thought. That loose bolts, shaky scaffolding and faulty wires destroy the lives of unsuspecting youth is an absolute crime.”

Alison Azer was nominated for a national magazine award for her article “The Lion-Hearted” (Alberta Views, October 2006).

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