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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

Health & Safety: Gordon Campbell and the Liberals hurt workers

The BCTF and its locals have done an outstanding job making education an issue in the upcoming election. The policies of Gordon Campbell and his government have had a seriously detrimental effect on teachers and students. At the same time that the Liberals have been vapourizing collective agreements, closing schools, and laying off teachers, they have also been busy eliminating important health and safety protections and Workers Compensation benefits.

Prior to the 2001 provincial election, employers complained that health and safety regulations and compensation benefits were "job killers" and got in the way of British Columbia business’s being "globally competitive." Campbell promised that he would cut regulations by one-third and would revamp the compensation system. Unfortunately for workers, that was one promise he kept.

In 2001, a panel of administrators governed the Workers’ Compensation Board. As the Liberals were coming to power, the panel had put the finishing touches on a tough antismoking regulation. The new government asked the panel to water down the regulation, and it refused. In response, the Liberals used Section 229 of the Workers Compensation Act, a section that entitles the government to overrule a WCB decision. The panel was replaced by two temporary administrators, an accountant and an actuary. One of the new administrators’ more regressive decisions was to eliminate the payment of interest on retroactive compensation benefits.

The Liberals’ next step was to amend the Workers Compensation Act. A seven-person board of directors, made up of one worker representative and six employer representatives, was named to run the WCB. Compensation benefits for workers who were injured, or developed a disease on the job were changed from 75% of gross salary to 90% of net. For workers earning $40,000 per year, the change meant a benefit reduction of about $225 per month. Previously benefits were indexed twice a year to the rate of inflation. The Liberals changed indexing to once a year at a new rate: inflation minus 1%. The changes have taken $700 million away from workers and have put it into the pockets of employers.

Amendments to the act went further. Lifetime pensions were eliminated, replaced by reduced pensions that end at age 65. The system where workers could appeal WCB decisions was altered significantly. Three levels of external appeal were replaced by one internal WCB review and one external appeal. The number of issues that could be appealed was reduced.

Twenty-five hundred teachers were not the only workers laid off by the Campbell government. At the Workers Compensation Board, 550 positions were eliminated. Those out of work include inspection officers, first-aid staff, WHMIS co-ordinators, ergonomists, laboratory staff, education training staff, hearing staff, and information officers. The rehabilitation clinic at the WCB office in Richmond was closed. The board’s excellent publications department was contracted out, and previously free publications, such as the regulation and prevention booklets, now cost as much as $65. WCB offices in Cranbrook, Williams Lake, Vernon, and Campbell River were closed.

Employers have been given more control over protections provided to workers. Many very prescriptive regulations were replaced, without any real consultation with workers, by regulations that give employers the power to decide for themselves appropriate protections. For example, prior to the election of the Liberals, first-aid regulations covered more than 26 pages in the regulation books. Now, first-aid regulations in the single regulation book cover little more than three pages.

What has been the effect of the changes? Consider the chart below.

It is easy to see that the decrease in workplace inspections, in orders written, and in penalties to employers who break the rules has not reduced the number of worker fatalities and has produced an alarming increase in young worker fatalities and permanent injuries. (Sadly ironic is the fact that Liberal changes to employment laws put people as young as 12 in the workplace, creating the potential for even more young-worker injuries and fatalities). But how can the decrease in the injury rate be explained?

There are a number of reasons why the injury rate is down. The injury rate is based not on the number of injuries, but on the number of claims accepted by the WCB. So, if there are fewer claims, or if fewer claims are accepted, the injury rate goes down.

The decrease in inspections, written orders, and financial penalties makes it easier for employers to institute incentive programs, such as prizes or cash, for workplaces with the fewest claims. Such programs generally do nothing to decrease the number of injuries at a workplace but usually decrease the number of claims, because individuals do not want to ruin things for everyone else or because they like the trinkets supplied by the employers. Changes to WCB policies have meant that fewer claims are being accepted. For example, it is now more difficult to make the connection between some diseases and occupational exposure. Of significant concern to BCTF members is the change in the act that eliminates compensation for chronic stress. Being driven from work by an unmanageable class or by a bullying principal is no longer accepted as a WCB claim.

Is there any hope for workers devastated by Gordon Campbell and the Liberals? Absolutely, but not unless we fight back! There is still time to get involved in the upcoming election. Share this information with your colleagues, friends, and neighbours. Ask Liberal candidates to explain why workers are worse off now than we were four years ago. Find a candidate in your constituency who is willing to stop the Liberal agenda. Go to work for that candidate. Register to vote, and ensure that people you know are registered. And, on May 17, vote for change!

      change from
  2001 2002 2003 2001-03
Workplace inspections 122,305 108,517 88,845 –27%
WCB orders written 42,865 34,168 24,176 –44%
Penalties recommended 184 138 135 –32%
Penalty dollars imposed $1,750,000 $1,760,000 $620,000 –62%
Permanent injuries 4,001 4,962 5,292 +27%
Worker fatalities 168 157 170 +1%
Young Worker fatalities1 5 5 9 +80%
Young worker injury rate2 3.6 3.2 3.0 –17%

1Young workers are workers aged 15–25.
2The injury rate is based on the number of claims accepted per hundred employed.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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