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WorkSafeBC overhaul could have huge employer cost implications

WorkSafeBC is a complex organization that plays an important role in today’s economy. According to its website, WorksafeBC is: … a provincial agency dedicated to promoting safe and healthy workplaces across B.C.

WorkSafeBC is a complex organization that plays an important role in today’s economy. According to its website, WorksafeBC is: … a provincial agency dedicated to promoting safe and healthy workplaces across B.C. [that] partner[s] with workers and employers to save lives and prevent work-related injury, disease and disability.

It is a large organization with multiple stakeholders that processes tens of thousands of claims every month. Given its mandate and the scope of its activities, regular policy and program tweaks are inevitable.

Since 2017, the NDP government has made several modest – and mostly appropriate – updates to expand and adjust worker benefits. It is now considering more sweeping changes as it continues to flesh out what Minister of Labour Harry Bains vaguely describes as a more “worker-centric” agenda.

Over the past four years, the government commissioned five separate reviews of different aspects of WorkSafeBC’s programs and operations. This plethora of disjointed reviews has spawned confusion and uncertainty about the government’s intentions for the agency. One of the reviews – penned by former labour lawyer Janet Patterson – contains recommendations, which, if implemented, would have significant cost implications for B.C. employers and upend the balance that has long existed in the system.

Anyone reading the Patterson report would think the workers’ compensation system is fractured, poorly run, and unable to meet the needs of injured workers. The report posits – but does not demonstrate – an urgent case for far-reaching change.

The reality is the exact opposite of what Patterson suggests. A careful assessment indicates that WorkSafeBC has been well run and prudently managed, and that the compensation system for injured workers that it operates is one of the best and most comprehensive in the country, if not North America.

Of particular note, the B.C. system has the highest coverage rate in Canada. Approximately 98% of workers in the province are covered – meaning they are eligible for benefits if they are hurt on the job. The comparable figures for Alberta and Ontario are 82% and 77%, respectively. Of any metric used to evaluate a workers’ compensation system, the extent of coverage arguably is the most important.

Then, too, WorkSafeBC’s board of directors and management have overseen more than a decade of declining accident rates. In part, this reflects a shifting industrial mix, but it’s also evidence that WorkSafeBC’s prevention and safety programs have been effective in reducing injuries. And when workers are injured, they generally receive prompt treatment and reasonable compensation.

For 15 years now, WorkSafeBC has surveyed workers and employers to gauge their views on service delivery as well as their overall satisfaction with the agency. Over this period, worker satisfaction has steadily risen (to 82% from 70%). The proportion of workers interacting with WorkSafe who say their claims decisions were fair or somewhat fair exceeds 90%, a figure that has been maintained for almost a decade.

At the same time, the number of B.C. workers who describe their claims decisions as unfair – or who otherwise indicate dissatisfaction with WorkSafeBC – is around 8%, half of the level reported in the mid-2000s.

These positive trends belie any argument that WorkSafeBC is systematically failing to meet the needs of workers in the province.

Similarly, employers – whose annual premiums of $1.6 billion largely pay for the system – also report high levels of satisfaction (over 80%, up from 65% in 2005). And, about 85% of B.C. employers judge that the premiums they pay are fair or somewhat fair.

Contrary to the impression left by Patterson, some commentary emanating from union officials and occasional statements by the minister of labour, WorkSafeBC has been well run, it has improved service delivery over time and it provides reasonable benefits to the vast majority of injured workers in a timely manner.

In this context, we find it troubling that the NDP government has failed to produce a broad situational and comparative assessment of the B.C. workers’ compensation system prior to embarking on a path that may lead to substantive, disruptive and very costly changes. Our research finds that the comparative data on coverage rates, injury trends, return to work outcomes, benefit levels and other metrics show the B.C. system performing well when judged against similar workplace health and safety agencies in other jurisdictions. •

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s senior policy adviser; Ken Peacock is the council’s senior vice-president and chief economist.