Alberta Human Services refuses to release information that would identify the province’s most unsafe, "high-risk employers," effectively brushing off a ruling by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"I think it’s frightening," said Linda McKay-Panos of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary.

"It could be interpreted to mean that they don’t want people to know about certain activities, and that is troubling because the information that is held by the government is our information. It belongs to the public and we have a right to know it."

CBC News filed a freedom of information request to Alberta Human Services in July 2012 seeking all records related to a database containing the workplace safety records of more than 150,000 employers.

The department maintains a searchable online database but it does not allow comparative searches to determine the worst employers.

The department refused to release any information citing several exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).

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University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody is questioning the government's commitment to transparency in light of this case. (CBC )

The department claimed, for example, that release of the information would harm business interests. It further claimed release of the information could "harm a law-enforcement matter" and it also claimed the information constituted "advice" under the act and was therefore exempt.

Catherine Taylor, a senior portfolio officer with the FOIP commissioner’s office, reviewed the department’s refusal at the request of CBC.

But even before Taylor began the review, the department told her it would not "change its decision regardless of (her) findings."

Taylor subsequently ruled none of the exemptions cited by Human Services was valid.

"I would recommend that (Alberta Human Services) release the records," Taylor wrote. "However, as I mentioned above I have already been informed that a decision change will not occur."

CBC News has been granted an inquiry by the FOIP commissioner into the department’s refusal to provide the information.

But even if the commissioner orders the department to release the information, it could refuse.

CBC News would then have no option but to seek the release of the records through the courts, a process that could take years.

Professor questions commitment to transparency

Alison Redford ran for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party, and in the subsequent election, on a reform platform, including increased transparency and accountability.

To that end, Redford even created a junior ministry of transparency, accountability and reform which is now reviewing the current FOIP Act for the stated purpose of improving public access to information.

University of Alberta political scientist Jim Lightbody said this case "speaks volumes about the Redford government’s commitment to freedom of information and transparency in governing.

"I think what we are learning is that, as we move on in the Redford years,  transparency is a very fluid commodity," Lightbody said.

"(We’re learning) that transparency works when it shows the government in a good light; transparency works when it can promote the government’s agenda on tax reform and budget accountability; transparency evaporates when it concerns some things that may reflect negatively on specific Alberta businesses."

Auditor general criticized Alberta Human Services

Nearly 51,000 workers were injured, and another 123 were killed in Alberta in 2011, according to Workers Compensation Board statistics.

In 2010, Alberta Auditor General, Merwan Saher conducted an audit of the department.

Saher reported the department not only did not adequately identify high-risk employers and workers, it also did not apply adequate enforcement to deter them from breaking the law.

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Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes the government is putting workers at risk by refusing to release the information. (CBC)

Saher recommended the department develop criteria to identify high-risk employers and workers, and step up enforcement. 

By 2012, the department still had not responded to his recommendations so he repeated them.

"The department still has not sufficiently defined high-risk employers and workers," Saher’s 2012 report stated.

"It also does not have processes that will comprehensively identify high-risk employers and workers and apply enforcement actions that will deter them from breaking the law.  

"Although the department has various enforcement tools to motivate employers to improve workplace safety, it has limited enforcement actions for the few high-risk employers and workers who fail to comply with the law."

Over the past week, neither Human Services Minister Dave Hancock nor his press secretary, Craig Loewen, have responded to repeated interview requests made by CBC through the department.

But in an email last week, department spokeswoman Kathy Telfer said it is still working on the high-risk criteria.

CBC News told Telfer it wanted to ask Hancock how his department justified withholding records that the FOI commissioner had ruled should be released. The email from Telfer provided information about department safety initiatives but did not answer that question.

Alberta Federation of Labour also failed to get records

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the federation tried for years to obtain the high-risk employer records through FOIP, but finally gave up.

"This bad-boss list is not just a list of a handful of employers who once in a while ignore the health and safety of their workers," McGowan said.

"These are repeat offenders who have been on the government’s radar for years, and who continue to be a problem and continue to put their employees at risk of injury, and perhaps even death. 

"So this is information that working Albertans deserve to know, and it’s what people need to know about their bosses, and about their prospective bosses. 

"And by withholding this information from the public, we feel very strongly that the government is actually putting Albertans at risk, and they’re doing that unnecessarily. 

"And to have them continue to hide this information, even though the information commissioner has ordered them very explicitly to disclose it, is just adding insult to injury. "