N.L. workers' comp rates still highest in Canada

Occupational health/safety Workplace injuries declines to 1.9 per 100 workers

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on April 11, 2009
Ralph Tucker is chairman of Newfoundland and Labrador's Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) board of directors. - Photo by Terry Roberts/The Telegram

Workplace injuries in this province are now among the lowest in the country, but the rates paid by employers to fund the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) remain the highest.

That's because the system is still underfunded, the commission continues to pay for operating deficits from previous years and further reductions in the accident rates are needed, said Ralph Tucker, chairman of the WHSCC board of directors.

Workplace injuries in this province are now among the lowest in the country, but the rates paid by employers to fund the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC) remain the highest.

That's because the system is still underfunded, the commission continues to pay for operating deficits from previous years and further reductions in the accident rates are needed, said Ralph Tucker, chairman of the WHSCC board of directors.

Tucker was the guest speaker Thursday at a meeting of the Rotary Club of St. John's.

He explained that the injury rate in Newfoundland and Labrador went from 3.3 per 100 workers in 2000 - the highest rate in the country - to 1.9 per 100 workers in 2008. Only three other provinces - New Brunswick, Ontario and Prince Edward Island - now have better rates.

"That's a huge decrease," Tucker said.

Tucker detailed a long list of initiatives undertaken by the WHSCC in recent years aimed at creating safer workplaces, including an emphasis on youth. It's resulted in a 38 per cent decline in workplace injuries since 2000. He praised employers and their employees for joining forces with the commission.

But the rates charged to employers to fund the system have not fallen at the same rate. In this province, employers pay an average assessment of 2.75 per cent of payroll to the commission. That rate has been the same since 2006.

Tucker acknowledged "that's not a healthy number, and we have to do better than that."

He said the commission has three options - increase benefits to injured workers, reduce assessment rates, or both. The conditions are not there for either, he said, because "we started from such a huge deficit. At the board level we're responsible for the integrity of the system from a fiscal perspective and it's not strong enough yet to let us look at any further reduction."

Last year, the commission collected 96.3 cents for every dollar it spent. In 2004, it collected just over 85 cents.

The situation is improving, but more work is needed, Tucker said.

He said workplace safety measures prevented roughly 17,000 injuries since 2000, and saved the system roughly $300 million. But there were still 7,394 injuries in 2008, including six deaths.

Tucker said a recent survey by the commission found that about 50 per cent of people believe accidents "just happen." Tucker said that's not true, and all accidents are preventable.

Meanwhile, the province's federation of labour is taking issue with the commission's statistics on workplace injuries. Federation president Lana Payne said the numbers are only half the story.

"The other half of the story is a system that rewards under-reporting and focuses on the cost of the injury rather than the injured worker," she said.

She said the number of injuries reported each year "is actually a decline in the number of workers' compensation claims accepted by the commission and may not necessarily equate to a decrease in the number of injuries. Data on the number of injuries is not reported."

Payne acknowledged that workplaces are safer, but said the federation is concerned that the declining number of claims being accepted by the commission may be due to other factors.

She said some claims for compensation are denied, and some injuries go unreported because employers want to avoid paying higher premiums to the commission. She said the amount of compensation benefits paid by the commission are so low that it becomes a "huge financial hardship" for some workers.

An official with the commission said roughly 96 per cent of compensation claims are approved. The remainder, the official said, are usually determined to not be work-related.

troberts@thetelegram.com