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Workplace safety legislation brings Alberta bravely into 21st century

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray. Photo: David Climenhaga

No doubt about it, the changes to Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety and Workers Compensation laws introduced in the Legislature by Labour Minister Christina Gray yesterday afternoon are a huge and positive step forward.

No law meets everyone's expectations, but it's fair to call Bill 30An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans, a true leap into the 21st century, not merely a cautious legislative step into the tepid waters of the mid-20th.

That assumes, of course, that the actual 21st century zeitgeist isn't really about rolling the hard-won gains of the 20th century back into the cruel workplace depredations of the 19th -- in which case, good on the Alberta NDP for bucking the deplorable global trend espoused by the likes of Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party Opposition.

Significant Occupational Health and Safety Act changes set out in Bill 30 include:

  • Embedding in law the right of workers to refuse unsafe work without losing pay, and protecting them from reprisals for exercising that right, as in every other province except B.C.
  • Making worksite safety inspections transparent, so workers know what problems were found
  • Ensuring workers continue to be paid if a stop-work order is issued for safety violations
  • Defining workplace violence and harassment in law and requiring employers to protect their employees from it
  • Mandating joint worker-employee workplace health and safety committees, just like every other province in Canada

Significant Workers Compensation changes include:

  • Removing the cap on workers' expected wages before injury, so their compensation reflects their earnings
  • Recognizing the impact of workplace injuries on workers' retirement security
  • Recognizing that psychological injuries are workplace injuries
  • Increasing benefits for young injured workers, and families whose loved ones were killed at work, including benefits until the youngest child is 18, or 25 if enrolled in post-secondary education
  • Creating an independent Fair Practices Office to help injured workers navigate a system that in the recent past has seemed designed to deny them fair compensation, and even criminalize them for seeking it

The government estimated the changes to Workers Compensation law will cost $94 million a year, to be paid out of Workers Compensation Board investment surpluses.

It will be very interesting to see how the UCP Opposition reacts to the truly dramatic changes proposed in Bill 30, which is certain to be passed by the NDP majority in the House. Right now they say they're thinking about it.

Will they grit their teeth and pretend to like at least some of it? The Bill's amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers Compensation Act will, after all, save lives and, for the first time in a generation or two, treat injured workers with a modicum of justice.

Or will they go all Joe McCarthy and call the idea of giving workers a legal right to refuse dangerous work and a genuine role in workplace safety the first step toward outright communism?

After all, that was the term used by both the Wildrose Party Opposition supporters and their Progressive Conservative counterparts to describe the Notley Government's farm worker safety legislation in 2015 for including such radical socialistic ideas as recognizing the constitutional rights of farm labourers and giving them access to Workers Compensation if they were injured.

Alert readers will recall that before he became leader of the right-wing Frankenparty that replaced the Wildrose and the PCs, Kenney vowed that, given the chance, he'd roll back every word of the farm legislation and every other law the NDP passed in an un-air-conditioned all-night session of the Legislature.

Alberta's Conservative dynasty hadn't touched Occupational Health and Safety laws in 41 years or Workers Compensation laws in 15 years. The Workers Compensation changes were preceded by a review by an independent panel.

Bill 30 will make work and workplaces in Alberta safer, healthier and more just. It will save lives. From the perspective of the Republicanized parties of the Canadian right, what's not to hate about that?

Bill 30 received first reading in the Legislature yesterday afternoon.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga

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