THE BILL-47 IMPACT: On Albertans, WCB, and OHS

The Albertan UCP Government used its majority powers to shut down debate and introduce Bill 47 -the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act

These changes to the OHS will come into effect on September 1, 2021. However, some changes to the Fair Practices Office and the Medical Panels office already took effect on April 1, 2021.

This Government has stated that the proposed Act will “eliminate duplication and simplify language to make OHS laws easier to understand and follow, resulting in healthier and safer workplaces and supporting investment attraction and job creation.” 

It’s hard to follow the logic that led them to conclude that this amended legislation will create healthier and safer workplaces or job creation.

When the previous government enacted Bill 30 in September 2018, it followed more than a years’ worth of stakeholder engagement. In contrast, in August of this year, the UCP allowed written submissions to be received for approximately two weeks. Bill 47 rescinds the majority of changes implemented in Bill 30. It has reset the compensation system to what we were working with four years ago.

Some notable changes include: 

  1. Health Benefit Plans: As of September 1, 2018, employers were required to continue paying the workers portion of the employee health benefit plan for up to one year following the date of the accident. Effective April 1, 2021, workers are now responsible for their own health care insurance if they are off work for a compensable injury.
  2. Employer obligation to reinstate and accommodate:  Prior legislation allowed WCB to investigate duty to accommodate and levy fines if an employer did not meet the undue hardship threshold. Under Bill 47, employers are “not legally obligated” to reinstate an injured worker – it is voluntary. 

“Bill 47 decreases worker’s compensation benefits to all injured workers in Alberta in areas including job security, health care, and compensation pay,” explained UFCW Local 401 WCB Advocate Steve Westcott. “Mr. Kenny has given these benefits to the employer on the backs of hard-working Albertans’.”

  1. Bill 47’s limiting presumptive coverage for psychological injuries. In September 2018, the previous government introduced presumptive coverage for psychological injuries for all injured workers, not just first responders. With this change, the burden of proof was transferred from the injured worker to the employer; the employer had to provide evidence to refute an injured worker’s claim for a psychological injury. This refinement was an essential change for bullying and harassment claims, given the obvious difficulty in collecting evidence. Bill 47 rescinds this provision. Coverage for psychological injuries (unless you’re a first responder) will be adjudicated like any other injury claim. This repeal means the injured worker must provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a workplace hazard contributed to the injury. 

In a meeting with the Labour Coalition Board in September 2019 to highlight how this affects working Albertans, the WCB reported their psychological injury statistics one year after the new provisions were introduced. The Board noted a 50% increase in reported primary psychological injury claims. Additionally, the acceptance rate for psychological injuries increased about 20%, with an average acceptance rate of 76%.

Though uncommon in Alberta, the refusal of unsafe work saves lives. During the Cargill COVID outbreak, workers made excellent and appropriate use of the right to refuse. 

“A number of our members have passed away because of COVID-19,” UFCW 401 Coordinator Devin Yeager told Global News during an interview. “We don’t know, what’s going to happen in five years, ten years, what the long-term effects are going to be on people’s health.”

And that is part of why it is so disconcerting that Bill 47 now will restrict workers’ ability to refuse unsafe work. Making it difficult for them to resist, thereby weakening retaliation safeguards. Amongst many other troubling changes to the right to refuse include:

  • Bill 47 eliminates the presence of a worker representative during the investigation of the allegedly unsafe work. 
  • Now, managers no longer need to notify a worker assigned to replace the worker who refused the work of the first refusal unless the first worker has complained to an OHS officer. 
  • Further, the employer is not required to tell the second worker they have a right to refuse the work as unsafe. Employers are also no longer required to pay workers while refusing unsafe work, which will suppress workers’ willingness to refuse.

During the last governments’ tenure, the government had altered the OHS Act to improve employees’ ability to refuse unsafe work and start the requirement of joint health and safety committees (JHSC’s). A long-overdue measure as Alberta was the last Canadian province to require JHSC’s.

The firsthand nature of employee knowledge offers safer worksites, a feature that is made real through joint committees. Workers’ safety priorities, often different from their employers, mean joint committees give workers a much-needed voice.

That’s why the changes brought by Bill 47 are so dangerous, some of which include:

  • Inconceivably, the rule for scheduled worksite inspections has been dropped from the Act.
  • Now, the employers choose who sits on the committees allowing employers to select obedient committee members.
  • The Act has removed requirements specifying the rules for committees. 
  • The Bill reduced the duties of JHSC’s to little more than offering non-binding suggestions.
  • The Bill cuts employers’ need to have workers’ join in regular worksite inspections and investigations of injuries and incidents.

These changes render JHSC’s worthless, and workplaces will become more vulnerable.

Altogether, it’s easy to see why in most labour advocates’ judgment, Bill 47 outlines a shocking rollback for worker safety. These changes will result in more injuries and deaths in our province.