Safety Advisory Foundation for Education & Research

‘Far from perfect’: Report reveals latest on work fatalities, injuries

Workers’ compensation boards accepted a total of 271,806 claims of lost time due to injury in 2019

More than 900 workers in Canada died due to work-related causes in 2019, according to the most recent national report on workplace fatalities and injuries.

The 2021 Report on Workplace Fatalities and Injuries was released in October from the University of Regina. It states that 590 workers in Canada died as a result of occupation-related diseases in 2019, while 335 also died that year as a result of workplace injuries, for a total of 925.

The 2019 fatalities total marks an improvement from 2018 — a year which claimed 1,027 workers across the nation.

Workers’ compensation boards also accepted a total of 271,806 claims of lost time due to injury in 2019.

Quebec reported the greatest number of these claims, with 82,821. Alberta had the highest number of injury-related fatalities, with 85, while Ontario saw the most workers die — 226 — as a result of occupational diseases.

The report uses data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC).

Rates of workplace-related injury and occupational disease fatality were calculated by dividing each jurisdiction’s number of fatalities by an estimated number of full-time equivalent workers in the province or territory.

But the report is quick to acknowledge there’s many limitations with the data.

Workers may have been exposed to an occupational disease years before a diagnosis was made or a claim filed. The definition of workplace injury varies across the country. These numbers also do not account for every injury. Not all workplaces are covered by compensation boards, and under-reporting of injuries continues to be a concern.

“These are not perfect statistics,” said Sean Tucker, an associate professor of human resources management at the University of Regina, who co-authored the report with Anya Keefe, an occupational and public health consultant.

“It’s the best data we have. We look at relevant change year-over-year, but we acknowledge that this data is far from perfect.”

Rates rising in Alberta and New Brunswick

According to the report, four jurisdictions with more than 100,000 workers — Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador — saw an increase in injury rates.

There was also an increase in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, although there are less than 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in those territories combined.

Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec had the greatest increases in their rate of lost time due to injury in 2019, compared to the province’s average from 2016 to 2018. Alberta and New Brunswick, along with Newfoundland, also saw the sharpest increase in their injury fatality rate in 2019, when compared to the average from 2016 to 2018.

Manitoba’s rate of occupational disease related fatalities was the greatest when compared to the average from 2016 to 2018.

Overall, the data doesn’t show any “real pronounced trends in either traumatic injury fatality rates or occupational disease fatality rates,” said Tucker.

Increases in jurisdictions like Alberta and New Brunswick are “worrisome,” he said, noting New Brunswick has been a concern for a few years.

However, Tucker is quick to add that working conditions vary by industry and province, and that local leaders have the best information about prevention and solutions.

Increases in lost time across country

There are increases in lost time due to injury that merit more exploration, said Tucker.

“As a general trend, lost time injury rate in Canada has been declining,” he said. “That’s been the general trend for a couple of decades.”

Several jurisdictions that have previously had low rates of lost time due to injury are now starting to see those numbers climb, Tucker noted.

For example, in 2015, Ontario had a work-related injury rate of 0.85, down from 1.15 in 2010. In 2018, the province’s rate was 1.16. In 2019, it was 1.14.

Similarly, Quebec’s rate was 1.74 in 2015, a big drop from 1.97 in 2010. But in 2018, the rate was 1.99 and it jumped to 2.06 in 2019.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s rates have climbed since 2017. New Brunswick’s rate declined from 1.35 in 2010 to 1.13 in 2013 and has risen steadily since to stand at 1.63 in 2019.

“It’s not only bottomed out, it’s increasing and trending upwards. That’s something we need to look at and better understand,” said Tucker.

Report shows COVID-19’s impact on workers

Full data for 2020 from the AWCBC won’t be available until 2022, said Tucker.

However, his report also looked at December 2020 data from provincial and territorial workers’ compensation boards to determine the impact COVID-19 was having on workplace injury and fatalities.

“It’s just so topical right now, and part of reality,” he said.

According to data from provincial and territorial workers’ compensation boards, 39 workers in Canada died in 2020 from COVID-19 they caught at work.

Each year’s report begins with a dedication to workers who have died as a result of their jobs. This year, five of the 12 workers profiled died from COVID-19.

“It’s important to acknowledge the issue of COVID at work,” said Tucker.

There were 32,742 workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 in 2020, the report states.

Most of those claims are for lost time. This means approximately 10 to 15 per cent of all claims in 2020 were related to COVID-19, said Tucker. “That’s pretty significant.”

These numbers are a reminder that COVID-19 needs to be treated as an occupational health and safety concern, says Christl Aggus, president of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering.

“Canadian workers are affected by viral infections through workplace exposure, (and) injuries and fatalities are attributed to those exposures, thus COVID-19 could be considered an occupational disease,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

“In order to provide effective solutions to identified workplace hazards, our members benefit from this type of data.”

But determining the source of exposure for viruses, like COVID-19, can be more difficult.

“Even though you’re at work and one of your co-workers has COVID-19, you may not know whether that came from the bus ride to work, or whether it came to the doorknob from the lunchroom,” she said in an interview. “There are concerns about that particular transmission.”

Better data needed

Much work needs to be done to better understand the dangers workers in Canada face on the job. Two of the report’s four recommendations are about data collection.

The first — a new one this year, said Tucker, is for key data about the previous year’s workplace injuries to be released to the public by March 31 of the following year.

Workers’ compensation boards collect data on a number of areas, but the report specifically recommends that data about the previous year’s lost time rate, number of fatalities from traumatic injuries and the number of fatalities from occupational diseases from the previous year be available by March 31.

This would make statistics available by the National Day of Mourning on April 28 that honours workers who have been injured or died as a result of workplace-related injuries or illnesses.

A certain amount of delay in releasing data is reasonable, said Tucker. Claims aren’t always filed immediately after an injury occurs, for example.

“Injuries don’t stop on Dec. 31. There are lags,” he said. “It’s not like you can hit a button on Jan. 1 and it spits out a report.”

But “the longer data lags, the less useful it becomes for informing injury prevention,” he said.

The report also recommends that data about workplace injuries and fatalities be harmonized across the country. Right now, there’s a lot of differences in how each jurisdiction collects data, which can make it hard to accurately determine if there are specific workplace safety trends.

“If organizations and agencies responsible for prevention and workers’ compensation across Canada came together to harmonize the definitions, the coding, and the categorization of the data they collected, it would not only facilitate more timely interjurisdictional comparisons, but it would also be helpful for identifying opportunities for workplaces to improve — both of which would be particularly advantageous for employers that operate in multiple provinces,” the report explains.

There’s a large need for standardized occupational health and training safety as well.

“Workers across the country should enjoy the same standards when it comes to having a safe work environment, regardless of the jurisdiction in which they work,” said Robin Angel, chair of the Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professionals, in an email.

“Harmonized OHS policy would also ease the burden on businesses across the country and ensure that the work (including training) of safety professionals is transferable with streamlined and similar policies across provinces and territories.”

Accurate information is key to the creation of targeted prevention programs that lessen the chance of workplace injuries and fatalities.

But workers need to know that, if an injury occurs, they will be covered.

“Workers who are hurt because of their work are entitled to compensation,” said Tucker.  “The system’s set up to support them and we want them to make a claim so they’re protected, should their injury or level of impairment after their career get worse. They have a safety net there. It’s a good thing if workers feel relatively more comfortable in their jurisdiction reporting — that’s a good thing.”

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Ottawa.

Courtesy OHS Canada Magazine