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Comment: WCB is broken, let's not wait any longer to fix it

Laird Cronk is president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, where Sussanne Skidmore is secretary-treasurer.
Workers, families, employers and others gathered on April 28 at the legislature for the National Day of Mourning to remember those who have lost their lives on the job. B.C.’s Workers’ Compensation Board needs significant reform if it is to adequately protect and rehabilitate employees from injury, Laird Cronk and Sussanne Skidmore write. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

With today marking Injured Workers Day across Canada, here are three real incidents in B.C. to consider:

A cabinet-maker’s hand is badly injured on a saw at work. Partway through his recovery, against medical advice, he’s told he’ll lose his benefits if he doesn’t return to his full work duties. Reluctantly he does. And because he still hasn’t properly healed, he’s reinjured by a table saw … and loses most of his hand.

A steel plate slams into a worker’s head, causing a serious injury and PTSD. He, too, is threatened with a loss of benefits if he doesn’t return to work before he’s ready. The result: he’s retraumatized.

A patient brutally beats a recreational therapist, leaving her with a concussion, chronic pain and PTSD. When her return to work turns sour, her character is questioned and medical evidence is dismissed.

You could be forgiven for thinking each case involves a giant, for-profit insurance company. But the organization treating injured workers this way is actually the agency that’s supposed to be supporting them and helping them recover: British Columbia’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB), also known as WorkSafe B.C.

The idea behind workers’ compensation is a simple one: As a worker, you give up your right to sue your employer if you’re injured or made sick by your work. In return, employers pay to fund the WCB, and if you’re injured, it will pay for your treatment and rehabilitation while compensating you for lost wages.

That’s the theory. But in practice, WCB may not be there for you when you need them.

In mid-2002, the B.C. Liberal government slashed benefits and changed compensation policies, with a goal of cutting costs for employers. Ever since then, an organization that ought to be an ally to injured workers in their recovery has behaved a lot more like a private insurance company.

That’s the conclusion drawn after a comprehensive review of the WCB by a government-appointed expert, Janet Patterson, in her 2019 report New Directions.

Through consultations with more than 1,000 injured workers, their families and others, she found WCB takes a cookie-cutter approach to complex injuries; often ignores medical evidence so it can cut costs and close cases; creates a bureaucratic maze that many injured workers simply can’t navigate; and, most dangerously, pressures injured workers to go back to work prematurely — potentially jeopardizing their recovery and risking further injury.

To be fair, the B.C. NDP government has made important changes to WCB in recent years. But there’s still a long way to go to make it the worker-centred system it’s supposed to be — and restore the balance lost 20 years ago.

We can start by treating injured workers as individuals, heeding medical advice on when their injuries have healed and no longer measuring success by how quickly they get back on the job.

As well, WCB should treat psychological injuries and chronic pain no differently from other injuries, and do more to help workers navigate the complex compensation system. They should also provide vocational rehabilitation tailored to an injured worker’s individual needs.

And workers and employers alike should be able to take their complaints about the WCB to an independent Fair Practices Commission — along with an independent medical services office to review medical disputes.

There’s more to do; we’ve set out an agenda for change on the website

Labour Minister Harry Bains has promised action by this fall, and we’ll hold him to that. Injured workers shouldn’t have to wait any longer for a WCB where the overriding focus is their well-being and recovery.

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