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Alberta bitumen boom accompanied by rising worker injuries

Cowichan Bay resident Dave Tod Fletcher, 55, understands the perils of working in the Alberta bitumen boom.

As a labourer for Cenovus Energy on its Cold Lake site in early 2012, he slipped plywood stairs installed by his company, a subcontractor. Cenovus later determined the stairs should've been replaced.*

The accident resulted in an 80 per cent tear in Fletcher's left quadricep, requiring surgery above his left knee and drill holes in the bone to reattach it, he said. But worse for Fletcher was the months-long attempt to seek compensation.

"Throughout my ordeal, I was called names, yelled at, accused of the accident being deliberate, and my pay was significantly reduced," wrote Fletcher in a Facebook post detailing his story.

Fletcher's injury falls among a rising rate of worker injuries and deaths in the province. Last year, Alberta saw a near-record high for deaths on the job: 173.

Excluding occupational disease and vehicle accidents, Alberta, with a population of four million, now reports 5.9 times more fatalities due to workplace injury than the United Kingdom, according to Athabasca university labour expert Bob Barnetson.*

The U.K. also performs 7.5 times more Occupational Health and Safety prosecutions than Alberta. In contrast, prosecutions of employers for unsafe workplaces in Alberta fell from a high of 22 in 2008 to a low of five last year.

Although Alberta depends on economic activity that is inherently more dangerous than other sectors, such as petroleum extraction, mining and construction, it remains a laggard on occupational health and safety.

According to a 2011 study by the Alberta Federation of Labour, the province has the lowest Workers' Compensation Board premiums in Canada for industries that are "responsible for the most worksite fatalities, occupational diseases, and disabling injuries."

Oil and natural gas exploration companies pay just $0.55/$100 payroll, for example, "while companies in the rest of Canada pay four times as much, at $2/$100 payroll," reads the study.

The Alberta government maintains that only 53,000 workers were injured on the job in 2009, but Barnetson calculates the number of workplace injuries annually in Alberta may be 500,000, or 10 times the government figure.

"The reason for the discrepancy is that the only injuries the government discusses in public are the disabling injury claims,” said Barnetson in 2013.

"By not reporting on those injuries which do not result in lost or modified work, they are under-representing the true rate of injury by a factor of 10."

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others.

*Story corrected April 14. Originally it misidentified details of Fletcher's accident and population of the U.K.

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