Most workplace injuries go unreported in Alberta: survey

Government statistics might be significantly underestimating the number of Albertans impacted by workplace injuries, according to a new report released by the University of Alberta's Parkland Institute.

166 Albertans died of workplace illness, injuries in 2017

Jodie Piercey and Kevin Burton spoke at the National Day of Mourning ceremony at SAIT to remember their father, who died of cancer he incurred from his job as a firefighter. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

A poll of 2,000 workers suggests that nearly 70 per cent of disabling workplace injuries in Alberta go unreported, according to a new report released by the University of Alberta's Parkland Institute Friday.

The survey's data suggests there may have been more than 170,000 injuries serious enough to require time off or modified work in 2016, but just 45,000 were reported.

"Workers typically don't report injuries for two reasons. The first is they don't think the injury is serious enough to warrant reporting. And the other is they fear their employers will retaliate against them for claiming the injury," said Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University and co-author of the institute's report.

Workers afraid to report

Barnetson said the report found that workers are terrified to exercise their rights or report unsafe conditions, and suggested that about half of Alberta employers are violating basic health and safety rules.

"In workplaces that are particularly dangerous, where the highest risk of injury exists, you find 40 per cent of workers are scared to even ask for health and safety information," he said.

The report was released the day before the annual Day of Mourning, which honours workers who have been killed, injured or made sick at their place of employment.

Two ceremonies were held in Calgary Saturday to mark the occasion.

In Alberta, 166 people lost their lives to workplace illness or injury in 2017, up from 144 the year before. 

At Calgary City Hall, flags were lowered to half-staff and 166 hard hats were placed on the steps to mark the lives lost.

Jennifer Hanmer is the chair of the Calgary Day of Mourning committee. She said it's not only important to remember those lost, but to raise awareness for workplace safety.

"The workers that aren't here have no voice. So we are their voices now," Hammer said.

Hammer said anyone can report unsafe working conditions to Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, even if it's not their own workplace. 

"So many people turn a blind eye when they see something small. Whether it be you're driving through a neighbourhood and you see that person working off a ladder, working off scaffold. You know you can call those in, as a citizen they can call those in. And that phone call might save somebody's life."

At SAIT's Orpheus Theatre, the names of the dead were printed on paper candles.

Paper candles memorialized those lost to workplace illness and injury in 2017. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Siblings Kevin Burton and Jodie Piercey honoured their father at the ceremony, who died of cancer 18 years ago. He was just 48. 

The metastatic melanoma was later determined to be caused by his job as a firefighter.

"Maybe if he wasn't a firefighter, that he would still be here. He didn't choose to be an accountant or other types of professions. And so it deserves no less honour," said Kevin Burton. 

Burton has followed in his father's footsteps, working as a firefighter and paramedic in Leduc, Alta.

"It has taken 18 years in order to be able to come to a ceremony like this, talk in front of a group and not be overcome by emotion," he said. 

Report calls for more inspections

The Parkland Institute report set out a series of recommendations to increase worker safety in response to their findings from the survey. 

The policy research group is suggesting the government increase the number of workplace safety inspectors and allow for inspections by civil society groups, as well as increase consequences for violations and make violations more public so they can be more easily tracked and enforced.

Labour Minister Christina Gray said the province has made some changes to support worker rights that go into effect June 1. 

"One of the things that we changed in our changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act is reporting from employers to Alberta Labour. We will now require employers to report near-misses, as well as the incidents themselves. And with that information we'll be better able to know what's going on in workplaces in Alberta," Gray said.

The report was based on a 2017 online survey of Albertans aged 18 and up who were employed during the past year. Respondents broadly matched the working population in terms of age, gender and industry. A margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample is +/- 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

With files from Anis Heydari, CBC Edmonton