Insightful Parkland Institute study of how media covers workplace injuries helps put yesterday’s tragedy in perspective

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PHOTO: An Alberta Occupational Health and Safety officer on the job. (Government of Alberta illustration.) Below: Athabasca University labour relations professors Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster, authors of a new study on how media coverage distorts our understanding of workplace injuries in Alberta.

Today is the International Day of Mourning for workers killed and injured on the job, an occasion with special poignancy in Alberta because the province recorded yet another workplace death just yesterday.

The still-unidentified contractor was killed when he was struck by a piece of heavy equipment on a job site at a chemicals plant northeast of the Central Alberta city of Red Deer. Little more is known, media tells us, because as the CBC explained the situation Occupational Health and Safety officers “are on site and they will be investigating.”

TpK7621PPut like that, this story falls conveniently into one of the three common “frames” that characterizes print media coverage of workplace injuries and death as described in a report coincidentally released yesterday by the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute.

These “three basic story templates,” wrote authors Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster in Buried and Forgotten, Newspaper Coverage of Workplace Injury and Death in Alberta, help create a misleading picture of workplace injuries and fatalities that has a real and harmful impact on public policy.

The frame in this latest case is what Dr. Barnetson and Dr. Foster, both labour relations professors at Athabasca University who studied newspaper coverage of the issue in the four Western provinces between 2009 and 2014, term the “Workplace injuries are ‘under investigation’” frame.

“Typically, these articles report on a recent injury. They contain a brief sketch of the facts and invariably conclude by indicating that the accident is under investigation by provincial OHS officers and/or police.”

A characteristic lack of context – including omitting the name of the victim or the nature of the work he was doing, as in yesterday’s CBC account – “means readers cannot understand why the workplace injury occurred. This lack of context and causality creates a sense that nothing could have been done to prevent the incident.”

These articles also assure readers the government “will take care of the matter,” the two professors add.

Jason-Foster_editThe other two frames described by the professors – which anyone who has worked in media has to admit is characteristic of news coverage, and not just of this issue – are described as:

  • “Workplace injuries are ‘human tragedies’” – and, therefore, unforeseeable, unavoidable, and certainly no one’s fault. This, the professors argue, “distances the reader … (from) the economic, political and structural factors that caused the ‘tragedy’ in the first place.”
  • “Workplace injuries are ‘before the courts’” – narrowing the focus of blame to mere legal culpability.

The cumulative effect, write Foster and Barnetson, is an “injury meta-frame” that there’s nothing to see here, folks. That is, that workplace deaths and injuries are isolated events, accidents for which no one is responsible, and rarely anything that ought to worry us very much.

The reality, the authors conclude, is that this formulaic approach to new coverage – which it is fair to observe is replicated in broadcast media – creates a broader misleading picture of workplace safety in this province and country.

For example, in addition to their arguments about how reports are framed, they conclude based on their analysis of more than 400 news articles that “women’s experiences of workplace injury are almost entirely ignored.” Instead, injuries in blue-collar sectors of the economy, traditionally more dominated by males, garner the bulk of news coverage.

Indeed, for every 13 workplace violence claims filed in the construction sector, Alberta Workers Compensation Board figures show, there are 802 in health care, where the majority of the claimants are women. Yet no one seems able to get Alberta Health Services to take seriously the issue of workplace security in rural hospitals!

Drs. Barnetson and Foster also assert that journalists tend to rely on government and employer sources for their stories, while workers and their advocates are rarely quoted. This is especially so on non-union worksites.

“If more accurate information was provided to Albertans about the extent of workplace injury and death, more Albertans may be moved to pressure the government to intensify enforcement,” they conclude.

“In this information vacuum, the issue of Alberta’s profoundly unsafe workplaces is obscured and public pressure is not brought to bear on government and employers to make workplaces safer,” they write. “The ultimate consequence is that workers continue to be needlessly injured and killed on the job.”

This might tempt a cynic to conclude it’s not that media are negligent and formulaic in their coverage, but that they performing exactly as intended in their job of fearless champion of the overdog.

There is probably just enough truth in this thought to make it dangerous. But whether the problem is caused by media malfeasance or, as is much more likely, under-manning and inattention, it would be a mistake to conclude media managers and proprietors can or will ever fix it themselves.

Nor will the private sector, left to its own devices, ever adequately monitor its own workplaces.

Only government can make these life-saving fixes, and the authors of Buried and Forgotten provide a list of 10 useful suggestions that would cost little to implement and have a real, immediate impact on workplace safety in Alberta.

These include regular official reports on the number and nature of workplace injuries, including “identification of the causal chain of the incidents to demonstrate (they) are not ‘accidents;’” regular updates of all Occupational Health and Safety prosecutions, and the adoption of new measures “that more accurately reflect the range and scope of workplace injury in this province.”

It won’t be easy for government to make these needed changes. Just look at the reaction from right-wing opposition parties to basic and responsible health and safety legislation already passed by Alberta’s NDP government. But the effort would save lives.

So when you read the news reports of yesterday’s tragedy, honour its still unnamed victim by taking the time to read this thoughtful Parkland Institute report as well.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

Categories Alberta Politics