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

New data released by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) shows that COVID-19 is a serious and potentially deadly workplace issue.

The data shows there were 15,066 claims for WCB compensation for COVID-19 infection in the last 2 years (Jan. 1, 2020 – December 31, 2021). Of those claims, WCB accepted 12,588 of them (a 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 statistics were first reported in May last year.

The data also shows that shows 33 “accepted fatality claims”, meaning the workers caught COVID-19 at work, were covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act¸ and died as a result of the illness.

The latest WCB data shows the largest number of COVID-19 claims were in the municipal government, education, and health sector with 5,212 accepted claims (41 per cent of the total).

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

COVID-19 fatalities compared to other workplace fatalities

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 fatalities from occupational diseases
– 19 fatalities from work-related motor vehicle accidents
– 23 fatalities from workplace incidents

The latest data shows 33 accepted fatalities from COVID-19 due to workplace exposure over two years, or, on average 15 fatalities per year. Only workplace exposure to asbestos (39 WCB accepted fatalities) and motor vehicles (19 WCB accepted fatalities) are potentially more deadly than workplace exposure to COVID-19, but more accurate data is required.

Systemic underreporting of workplace disease, injuries, fatalities

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

Firstly, there are scores of industries that are not covered by WCB legislation. About 18 per cent of Alberta workplaces are not included in the stats. Also, the agricultural sector is unique in that there is optional, not mandatory, WCB coverage. The UCP repealed a number of workplace laws from the agricultural sector, including mandatory WCB coverage, labour relations coverage, employment standards, and coverage under the OHS Code (the OHS Act still applies).

Secondly, there’s evidence of significant under-reporting of workplace injuries and diseases to Alberta WCB. There are workplace and systemic pressures on workers to avoid reporting injuries or diseases to WCB.

Finally, the UCP government recently limited access to PCR testing for COVID-19, which creates difficulties for workers to get diagnosed. However, WCB vowed to “not letting access to testing be a barrier for workers’ benefit entitlements.” Nevertheless, the lack of widely available testing will ensure many people who are infected with the virus may not know and might be hesitant to claim WCB benefits.

UCP government’s response falling tragically short

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

Alberta workers have been greatly affected by the UCP government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UCP have consistently downplayed the dangerous aspects of the virus. They dropped nearly all pandemic-related public health measures last year for their infamous “open for summer” campaign. The UCP’s decision led to tens of thousands of Albertans being infected, hundreds in hospital, and scores dead. All of that could have been avoided with common-sense measures.

Prior to that, the UCP government declared meatpacking plants “safe”. Soon after, there were thousands of workers sick and some dead due to workplace exposure to the virus. At one time, Alberta’s Cargill meatpacking plant was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America.

As Alberta is in the throes of a massive fifth wave of the pandemic, the UCP government decided to lift many public-health measures, drop most testing requirements, loosen isolation rules, and send children back to in-school learning.

The Alberta Federation of Labour has consistently placed worker safety ahead of other concerns, unlike the UCP government. We called for temporary circuit-breaker 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 person) responded that additional measures to curb the fifth wave are “not on the table and not being considered.”

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