WCB stats prove COVID-19 is a serious workplace safety hazard

New data published by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) shows COVID-19 is a serious and life-threatening workplace issue.

Data shows that there have been 15,066 WCB claims for COVID-19 infection over the past 2 years (January 1, 2020 through December 31, 2021). Of these applications, WCB accepted 12,588 (an 85.2% acceptance rate). The average time off work due to COVID-19 was 17.3 days, an increase from 15.1 days when the stats were first released in May last year.

The data also shows that 33 “allowed death claims”, meaning workers caught COVID-19 at work, were covered by the Workmen’s Compensation Act¸ and died of the disease.

The latest WCB data shows the highest number of COVID-19 claims were for municipal government, education and healthcare with 5,212 claims accepted (41% of the total).

Hospitals and continuing care facilities have had several ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. However, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and the UCP government say schools are not driving increased community transmission. However, Quebec doctors say schools have helped drive previous waves of the pandemic.

Deaths related to COVID-19 compared to other workplace deaths

By comparing the latest WCB data to pre-COVID statistics, it becomes clear that the virus is dangerous and potentially deadly in the workplace or other settings. Prior to COVID-19 (in 2018), WCB accepted 100 workplace fatalities:
– 58 deaths due to occupational diseases
– 19 deaths due to work-related road accidents
– 23 deaths due to workplace incidents

The latest data shows 33 accepted deaths from COVID-19 due to workplace exposure over two years, or an average of 15 deaths per year. Only occupational exposure to asbestos (39 deaths accepted by the WCB) and motor vehicles (19 fatal accidents accepted by the WCB) are potentially more lethal than exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace, but more precise data are needed.

Systemic under-reporting of occupational diseases, injuries and deaths

It is important to note that the statistics are only claims accepted by the WCB, and not a true picture of workplace exposure to COVID-19. The impact of COVID-19 infection on workers due to occupational exposure is likely far greater than these statistics show.

First, there are dozens of industries that are not covered by WCB legislation. Approximately 18% of Alberta workplaces are not included in the statistics. Additionally, the agricultural sector is unique in that there is voluntary and non-compulsory CAT coverage. The UCP repealed a number of labor laws in the agricultural sectorincluding mandatory WCB coverage, labor relations coverage, employment standards, and coverage under the OHS Code (the OHS Act still applies).

Second, there is evidence of significant under-reporting of occupational injuries and illnesses to WCB Alberta. There are systemic and workplace pressures on workers to avoid reporting injuries or illnesses to WCB.

Finally, the UCP government has recently restricted access to PCR testing for COVID-19, creating difficulties for workers to get diagnosed. However, WCB is committed to “do not let access to testing be an obstacle to workers’ rights to benefits.” Nevertheless, the lack of widely available tests will ensure that many people infected with the virus may not know it and may be reluctant to claim WCB benefits.

The UCP government’s response tragically fails

Alberta is just beginning to grapple with the “long COVID” issue where the disease can affect people for weeks or even months after initial infection. Alberta Health Services has developed a survey to help understand the long-term effects of infection with the virus, but other jurisdictions have found up to 25% of people infected with the virus show symptoms for up to six months. The NDP opposition has called on the government to create a task force to review the long COVIDbut so far this call has been ignored.

Alberta workers have been greatly affected by the UCP government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP has consistently downplayed the dangerous aspects of the virus. They ditched nearly all pandemic-related public health measures last year for their infamous ‘open for summer’ campaign.. The UCP’s decision resulted in the infection of tens of thousands of Albertans, hundreds of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths. All of this could have been avoided with common sense measures.

Before that, the UCP government has declared meatpacking plants ‘safe’. Soon after, thousands of workers fell ill and some died due to exposure to the virus at their workplace. At one time, the Cargill meatpacking plant in Alberta was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America.

As Alberta grapples with a massive fifth wave of the pandemic, the UCP government has decided to lift numerous public health measuresscrap most testing requirements, relax isolation rules and send children back to school learning.

The Alberta Federation of Labor has always put worker safety ahead of other concerns, unlike the UCP government. We have called for temporary cut-out measures to stop the virus. We made the call reluctantly and with great frustration because the UCP has not taken the pandemic seriously. Premier Kenney (through a staff member) responded that additional measures to curb the fifth wave are “not on the table and not considered.”

The Alberta Federation of Labor will continue to fight for safe and healthy workplaces. We will continue to press the UCP government to put worker health and safety ahead of business interests.


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Susan W. Lloyd