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Labour + Industry

The ‘Top Employer’ Where Workers Kept Dying

Suncor was celebrated in the Globe and Mail. Safety advocates want change.

Zak Vescera 22 Dec

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

On July 7, a 26-year-old Fort McMurray man was killed at Suncor Energy’s oilsands plant, one of five deaths at the company’s northern Alberta worksites in just two years.

Four months later, the Globe and Mail published a report naming Suncor one of Canada’s top 100 employers.

The newspaper now says it is working on changes to the annual report after concerns were raised about Suncor’s inclusion despite a poor safety record prompted its CEO to resign in July.

The list is third-party content sponsored by the Globe and is not prepared by its journalists.

But vice-president of marketing Sean Humphrey says they are also now reviewing how the paper is referenced in the project and how the list is compiled.

That comes after backlash from occupational health and safety experts who lambasted the Globe for publishing the list and questioned the methodology used by Mediacorp Canada Inc., a Toronto-based employment publications firm that has prepared and compiled the list for more than two decades.

“You’re saying that companies can be the best of the best but still have multiple workers die on the job,” University of Regina professor Sean Tucker said.

A dozen Suncor employees have been killed at the company’s northern Alberta oilfields in the past eight years — far more than any other company doing comparable work. The company’s last CEO, Mark Little, resigned in July shortly after the latest death.

Suncor did not respond to a request to comment for this article, nor to a report first published in PressProgress.

But the company’s chairman told the Canadian Press earlier this year they had “fallen short” on health and safety. Interim CEO Kris Smith told investors in a recent quarterly report that the company would be “partnering with industry leading subject matter experts” to improve its safety protocols and would reduce its reliance on contractors.

Tucker, who closely follows Canadian workplace safety issues, said it was not the first time he had taken issue with Mediacorp’s list.

Last year Cargill was declared a top employer despite a 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at a High River, Alberta plant associated with nearly 1,000 infections and three deaths.

Tucker and a group of other occupational health and safety experts wrote to Globe publisher Phillip Crawley, who Tucker said seemed receptive to reviewing the criteria used in the list. That’s why Tucker was shocked Suncor made the cut.

“I’m looking at the list and my jaw dropped. I was thinking, are you kidding me?” Tucker said.

Mediacorp publisher Anthony Meehan did not respond to emailed requests to comment or calls made to the company’s Toronto office.

The exact criteria used to determine who makes the list are not clear.

A letter distributed to would-be applicants earlier this year says the winners are chosen by a full-time staff of editors and other employees. Applicants paid a fee of just under $1,400 to be considered.

The project also raises money, the letter says, through other revenue streams including advertising and licensing rights paid by media companies to run the list and the results of other, regional competitions, like a list of top employers in British Columbia.

The Globe and Mail is listed as a current sponsor. Humphrey did not respond to an email with further questions about the financial relationship between the Globe and Mail and Mediacorp.

Maureen Shaw has closely followed Mediacorp’s list over her more than four decades of work in occupational health and safety. Shaw, now retired, said she would even write a letter of congratulations to companies who won places on the list. She was horrified by Suncor’s inclusion.

“It’s more than shocking. It’s more than disappointing,” Shaw said. She noted Suncor’s issues are well-known and continuing. Last week, Newfoundland’s energy regulator laid charges against the company related to a 2019 incident where a worker was injured onboard a floating oil rig off the province’s coast. The company is alleged to have failed to submit an adequate written report or followed rules requiring workers wear safety harnesses onboard such vessels.

“It’s just unbelievable that an organization of that size would get into the state that they’re in,” Shaw said. She says she supports giving out awards as a way of encouraging good employment practices, but argued Mediacorp should be including health and safety data in that analysis, using submissions from the relevant workers’ compensation boards as supporting documentation.

“What are the criteria? How do we substantiate what is put on paper by the companies? I think that’s the big issue,” she said.

Tucker argued the absence of such protocols suggests the list is more about finances than it is about good workplace practices.

“I think if you open up and take a look under the hood, there’s not a lot there,” he said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Labour + Industry

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