Book Review by Jane Edgett: The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada by Bob Barnetson (2010)
On 21 October, 2009, injured carpenter Patrick Clayton armed himself with a rifle and entered the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board. Clayton hurt no one. He just wanted to be heard. He later stated, “I just got sick and tired of being treated like a piece of crap by WCB.”
In The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, Dr. Bob Barnetson says that Clayton’s desperation is “symptomatic of how injury prevention and compensation efforts in Canadian workplaces do little to protect or aid workers.”
Not since Terence Ison’s Workers Compensation in Canada (1989) has such an expose been written about the inner workings of Canada’s corrupt workers compensation system.
Clayton’s case is not an isolated incident. Barnetson states that in most cases, a “disturbing pattern of bias against workers emerges.” Hundreds of thousands of Canadian families have been plunged into poverty by a workers compensation system that denies them support.
The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada doesn’t simply tell us that workers compensation doesn’t help workers. It tells us WHY it doesn’t help and, even more important, WHY no one fixes it.
The first four chapters indict federal and provincial governments for allowing more than half a million Canadian workers to be injured and killed each year.
Barnetson exposes how governments allow corporations to create dangerous work environments and then download the cost of production onto injured workers, their families and taxpayers. This process is made easier by the institutionalized stigmatization of injured workers as “lazy, malingering, clumsy, stupid, and careless.”
The workers compensation system has become a substitute for injury prevention.
Barnetson states that the “moral commitment to worker welfare is clearly absent,” as employers design jobs to maximize profit regardless of the harm to workers. Weak legal regulations also indicate “intentionally prioritizing profitability over safety.”
The practice of compensating short-term claims while denying long-term claims and non-visible injuries (such as toxic chemical exposure, chronic stress, repetitive strain injuries, etc.) causes many workplace hazards to go unaddressed.
Government agencies knowingly use erroneous data to claim that workplaces are getting safer, when the opposite is true. Because denied claims do not appear in the injury statistics, the workplace hazards that caused them are simply ignored.
Barnetson highlights the economic power disparity between the worker and a system that allows a worker to go bankrupt while awaiting an appeal decision. He digs into the industry practice of appearing to protect workers while in reality treating them as disposable cost-benefit items.
Over the past five years, 1,585 injured Canadian workers have signed an online petition calling for an inquiry into wrongdoing by workers compensation boards across Canada. Many have left notes outlining how the system has destroyed their lives and their families. One injured worker went on hunger strike to get a hearing.
Links to video interviews with Dr. Barnetson, his blog and a copy of his e-book can be found at: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120178
Jane Edgett is an injured healthcare worker and founding member of the Canadian Injured Workers Society.