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Alberta labour minister warns economic crisis may jeopardize workers' safety

By Jeff Morrow
| www.cos-mag.com

Alberta could be facing another blow to its economy in the next ten years if more is not done to counter a dwindling skilled labour shortage combined with a growing number of retirees, according to the province’s minister of Employment and Immigration, Thomas Lukaszuk.

He said the safety and well-being of Alberta’s workforce could be on the line as employers struggle to cope with an evolving labour market.

Lukaszuk made his statements to kick off the annual Alberta Health & Safety Conference and Trade Fair in Edmonton recently.

He told safety professionals and business leaders the province’s industrial sector must come up with innovative techniques to attract young workers, train them and keep them motivated. “Alberta needs to be ready for the next stage of growth,” he said. “Our province has an amazing future and we need to ensure we have a skilled, productive, innovative and creative workforce to compete globally. We need to shift our thinking.”

More than 600 attended the 9th annual, three-day Alberta Health & Safety Conference titled, Workplaces on the Move.

It is a fitting and timely theme, according to Lukaszuk, who has been promoting a province-wide campaign encouraging employers to hire more workers, at the same time advising industry leaders that new government initiatives are in place to ensure worker safety.

Lukaszuk said new and retrained workers should be exposed to a strong safety culture from the moment they are brought on to the jobsite. It’s imperative to the future of Alberta’s economy that young workers are provided with a safe and healthy environment, he said.

 

Lukaszuk said the province should expect a 50 per cent reduction in the labour force over the next decade. As a result, more programs should be created to attract and train skilled workers, many of whom faded from the market during the last economic downturn.

“Much of our prosperity has rested on the growth of our labour force, which we know is slowing down, due to our low natural birth rate and increasing retirement rates” he said. “Our workers must remain healthy and safe.”

During the keynote panel discussion on The Changing Face of the Workplace, Alberta Justice attorney Mark Greene, echoed Lukaszuk’s remarks. He said the health and well-being of Alberta workers cannot be jeopardized despite the drive to increase productivity.

Greene said employers should use the government’s new safety legislation as a guide for implementing policies to protect their workers. Enforcement should be a final option, he said.

Greene said a growing number of Alberta employers are reevaluating how they manage the workforce; providing flexible hours or non-traditional work shifts, job sharing strategies, and the use of technology which allows more employees to work from home.

Garth Rattray, executive director for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said employers need to recognize that the workplace has become more stressful and demanding the past 15 years.

He said the combination of law and common sense should help shape Alberta’s struggling economy, which is now reliant on a youthful workforce.

“Workers are more at risk then ever before,” Rattray said. “They are fatigued and often poorly trained to cope with the high level of work. It can’t be about the big pay cheque anymore.”

“The workforce will continue to change,” he said. “As employers, we need to take control.”

Employment and Immigration Minister Lukaszuk noted that the government recently added four new items to its 10-point safety plan announced earlier this year to bolster the province’s safety legislation.

“Work-related diseases and vehicle incidents are killing more workers than injuries are,” said Lukaszuk. “It is time we took steps to reduce these work-related fatalities.”

The new initiatives are:

o    Identifying new ways to reduce work-related motor vehicle incidents — a new best practices guide and e-learning program, Driving for Work: Developing Safe Practices for Employers and Workers, will help employers develop effective safe driving programs for their employees.  

o    Identifying new ways to reduce work-related diseases — Lukaszuk has instructed Employment and Immigration to establish an occupational disease prevention program.

o    Formalizing the process to ensure that family input is sought on each and every occasion that involves a creative sentence.

o    Making the enforcement system even stronger — hiring an additional eight Occupational Health and Safety Officers will bring the total to 102 and will result in a stronger presence on Alberta worksites. 

The original 10-point plan, included:

1.    Implementing updated compliance and enforcement procedures — implemented July 30 and October 8.

2.    Unveiling an easy-to-understand online template for posting safety records — posted August 30.

3.    Posting the safety records of all Alberta companies online — posted September 30.

4.    Reviewing the direction of Work Safe Alberta — to be reviewed at a November 8 forum.

5.    Launching an internal software program improving data collection and reporting systems — ongoing.

6.    Revising the Employer Review Process for companies with Certificates of Recognition and poor safety performance — ongoing.

7.    Discontinuing Best Safety Performer Awards and reviewing awards programs — ongoing.

8.    Hiring eight additional occupational health and safety officers — ongoing.

9.    Reviewing all open orders identified by the Office of the Auditor General — ongoing.

10.    Introducing a pilot project for weekend and evening worksite inspections — ongoing

The Alberta Health & Safety Conference and Trade Show is sponsored by The Health & Safety Conference Society of Alberta, a non-profit, multi-partner organization, made up of various health and safety-related industry associations, professional organizations, government, Workers' Compensation Board and other related groups.

Their objective is to work together to promote the importance of health and safety in the workplace and to provide a source of health and safety education to conference delegates.

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