PHOTOS: Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray, in a shot taken by the author at last summer’s Premier’s Pancake Breakfast on the Legislature grounds. In the background, media camera crews mob Premier Rachel Notley as she flips pancakes on the griddle. Below: UCP leader Jason Kenney and Joe McCarthy, some guy who is also mentioned in this story.

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 30, An 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-employer 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? Its 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, Mr. 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-airconditioned all-night session of the Legislature.

Alberta’s Conservative dynasty hadn’t touched Occupational Health and Safety laws in 41 years, or Workers Compensation for 15. 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.

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  1. It is a great step forward and I commend the Government for moving forward on this. Previous Governments made many promises but never had the guts, the desire, or the willingness to move forward with it. Their direction and influencers seemed to come from a different direction.

    This bill is not perfect, no bill ever is. But is a vast improvement on what we had before.

    Bravo Miister. It is so refreshing to actually see a political party in Alberta actually fulfilling their electoral commitments.

  2. Agree with much of this except: “…a system that in the recent past has seemed designed to deny them fair compensation…”, because employers and WCB as an institution have an obligation to defend themselves against fraud (which exists on a number of levels), and well-intentioned assumptions of entitlement on the part of workers. WCB has a range of problems to address, but reducing workers’ obligation to provide reasonable medical & other evidence via legislation is not going to improve this relationship.

  3. For so many years the PCs misrepresented WCB as a program, a benefit, that employers provided to workers at their expense. The WCB Board operated as though compensation payments to injured workers were expenses to be minimized in order to fulfill their obligation to employers to be good shepherds of the premiums paid by employers for the insurance provided. Over the years the organization evolved into a perverse machine that operated at the behest of the businesses that paid premiums and that strove to provide ever greater minimization of claim expenses, lower premiums, greater investment returns and ever larger premium refunds.

    What has been erased in the public consciousness is the fact that workers agreed to give up their right to legal action against their employers in return for Workers’ Compensation (insurance) covering income loss as a result of injury or death on the job.

    Were that in the mind and intent of the WCB program over the years who knows how many marriage and relationship breakdowns could have been avoided? How many bankruptcies? How many workers who lost the battle, or just couldn’t fight any the WCB any longer and took their own lives? How many injured people that were prescribed opiate pain killers, then abruptly cut off arbitrarily, with no short term tapering, who were then forced to buy on the street?

    My hope is that, if passed and put into force, this new legislation will provide outside oversight and intervenors closely monitoring all cases of serious injury and that the ministry will oversee the board closely until workers (and the public) can be assured that the current corporate culture is fully eliminated.

    1. Well stated, Linda.

      I see the WCB website is still misleading the public by calling itself a “company”, instead of a government agency. In comments on a Postmedia story about the new legislation, several individuals were claiming WCB was totally independent of the government because it was funded by employers. Word needs to get out that the organization is no different than other agencies with service delivery mandates like Alberta Health Services or Travel Alberta. I agree the corrupt Progressive Conservatives were happy to disguise the true purpose of the WCB and its duty to workers. I imagine the PCs were hoping to privatize it – selling it for a dime to some American or international insurance company.

      The current WCB CEO (Guy Kerr) has been leading the agency for at least 16 years, so even though most of the board members are fairly new, I wonder if the dysfunctional corporate culture can be eliminated.

  4. It really is hard to imagine how the UCP will oppose this bill, but no doubt they will have to find a way if they are going to maintain their close relationship with various construction companies and their desired donations. At the same time I would guess their support base has a considerable number of construction workers that they don’t want to alienate.

    During the UCP leadership debates all of the candidates said they would repeal the NDP’s minimum wage law, except Jason Kenney. Kenney wisely pointed out that promising minimum wage workers a pay decrease was not a good platform to campaign on. By the same token I can’t see them opposing Bill 30 very strenuously either, or use it as an election issue. I expect in both cases Kenney will just deal with the relevant bill after being elected, by repealing the minimum wage bill and gutting Bill 30 at the regulations stage, and we will never know what sort of reassurances he whispered to their business donors like Merit Contractors Association et al during the election campaign.

    Bill 6 will be different because there are, I assume, more farmers than farm employees. As a result, there is a political gain to be made promising to repeal it.

    That said, I think the NDP could make some political points with Bill 6 as well. I am imagining an ad showing an ambulance in a farm yard, with the attendants working on a prone figure while an anxious looking wife and 2 kids look on. The voice-over, or caption, says “Jason Kenney will take away their coverage”. It would not influence the farm owner vote, but it could be effective with urban voters.

  5. Just think about this. Consider all of the changes in the work environment over the past 40 years.

    Yet this is the very first time in 41 years that the original legislation was reviewed and updated. This in itself is a sad commentary on past Alberta Goverrnments.

    Now, let’s hope they get busy and put in piece measures to solve future abandoned well costs. What we have today is a mess, a disgrace, and a financial liability for future Governments. Albertans appear to be stuck with some historical costs. Let’s fix this now.

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