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B.C. worker death rate decreases by two-thirds

The rate of workers being killed on the job through injury is falling in British Columbia, including in some of B.C.’s high-risk sectors such as forestry and construction.

The rate of workers being killed on the job through injury is falling in British Columbia, including in some of B.C.’s high-risk sectors such as forestry and construction.

There is no single factor for the decline, but improvements include an enhanced workplace safety culture, increases in training programs, the advent of industry safety associations and increased public scrutiny, say industry groups and the province’s chief workplace safety agency, WorkSafeBC.

The groups say continuing vigilance, more sophisticated approaches to determine root causes of unsafe work incidents and improving workplace safety culture is needed to drive death rates down further.

The United Steelworkers, a union representing more than 35,000 workers in B.C., many in the forest industry, says more work is needed to address the “economic heroin” of workplaces. That’s where production and economic considerations often trump safety, said United Steelworkers director Steve Hunt.

“[We need to] find out if workers have the right to really refuse unsafe work or challenge the work that they are doing without penalty,” said Hunt.

B.C.’s laws give workers power to refuse unsafe work, but they often do not because they are fearful of being singled out for some kind of reprisal, he said.

Hunt is also an advocate of a tougher approach to enforcement and said companies should be prosecuted criminally in egregious workplace death cases.

Hunt said it is good that workplace deaths are down, but added it is important to remember these are people, not numbers.

And the numbers are still too high, he said.

The rate of workplace deaths due to injury has decreased 67 per cent in the past two decades — to 0.34 deaths per 10,000 person-years of work in 2014 from 1.02 in 1990, according to WorkSafeBC data.

Still, between 1990 and 2014, 2,305 workers were killed by injury on the job. That figure does not include workplace deaths from disease, which is on the increase, and totalled 1,437 during the same period.

In 2014 alone, there were nearly 80 workplace deaths from injury.

Although he acknowledged the downward trend, Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC vice-president of prevention services, said one workplace death is one too many.

Today, if deaths from disease are included, three people are dying each week, noted Johnson. He said when he tells people in social situations about this, they are a little shocked.

“We just need to remain vigilant as to what is preventable and what we learn from things,” said Johnson on what is needed to drive down workplace on-the-job death rates further.

So far this year, four deaths in the construction sector have been reported to WorkSafeBC. That compares to an average of 11 during the past decade.

B.C. Construction Safety Alliance executive director Mike McKenna said one of the tools to help further reduce workplace death and injury rates is the use of more sophisticated analysis.

For example, when there was a rise in injuries for road workers, the association determined through a review that drivers were slipping on worn-out rubber treading on steps into their trucks.

In forestry, workplace death rates have fallen to about eight a year in the past seven years from more than 20 a year in the previous decade. The industry continues to work on training and certification, particularly in the high-risk areas of tree falling and log-truck driving.