Danger Zones

Workplace hazards are not limited to on-road threats

It can happen without warning – a previously unseen hazard makes itself known with tragic results.

For one Woodstock, Ont. driver, that happened when a routine unloading turned deadly April 30. The 47-year-old was moving granite countertops out of his truck at a Kitchener supply store when disaster struck and he was crushed.

Details of how the incident came to pass are being closely guarded by authorities until an Ontario Ministry of Labour investigation can be completed, but the incident is hardly an isolated one.

For all the advertising governments do to promote safe practices in the workplace, statistics on workplace safety can be difficult to interpret. No national statistics exist, and those kept and curated by provincial organizations vary.

The five-year injury rate in British Columbia. The red line represents the overall provincal workforce, while the blue line is the “general trucking” catagory. Graphic provided by WorkSafe BC.

WorkSafe BC, the provincial workplace insurer for British Columbia, keeps statistics by industry, but drivers can be classed in several different occupational groups, and not every stat is available by those individual groups. Ontario’s data sets often don’t include occupations or industry subsectors at all, according to Ministry of Labour sources.

What is clear is that, when compared to the broader workforce, those in the trucking industry face disproportionately high injury rates — even after accounting for motor vehicle collisions.

According to data collected by WorkSafe BC, the injury rate for those in the transportation sector is double the provincial average. The rate for both groups has remained steady over the past five years, with just 2.2% of the province’s overall workforce facing injuries on the job. But 4.4% of those in transportation experience on-the-job injuries each year.

In 2016, 1% of those classified as “general trucking” workers – those not operating specialized equipment like log haulers or fuel tankers – suffered serious injuries. That’s more than three times the 0.3% serious injury rate of the overall BC workforce.

While the numbers may not seem like a lot, WorkSafe BC paid out more than $94 million in claims to trucking industry workers in 2016. Nearly $32.7 million of it went to those in the “general trucking” sector, which also doesn’t include those employed as mechanics, warehouse employees, or dock workers.

More than 1,000 short- or long-term disability claims (known as time lost claims) were made in 2016. To be classified as one of these claims, the injured worker must be off work for 10 or more days, requiring a longer period to recover. This number includes fatalities.

These numbers don’t include other direct or hidden costs to businesses associated with injuries, says WorkSafe BC spokesman Mark Ordeman.

When an injury happens, drivers and fleets know they’ll immediately see costs associated with lost time and productivity, health expenses, administration expenses, damages to property and equipment, and replacement wages, but with each injury there is the potential for even greater costs down the line.

The long-term costs of accidents are often the most expensive and can be harder to measure. They range from an increase in insurance premiums, to downtime associated with investigations, to the effect on a fleet’s reputation, employee morale and retention. Not to mention the impact on the injured themselves.

In the five years between 2013 and 2017, about 18 drivers were killed during B.C. incidents not related to a motor vehicle crash. Of those deaths, six were related to asbestos exposure and six were due to complications from other long-term injuries sustained while working.

One unnamed driver died in 2014, two years after he was injured on the job. His eventual death was the result of an accidental drug overdose from opioids used to treat injuries obtained in a 2012 accident, highlighting some of the hidden consequences of workplace injuries.

While it’s easy to focus on the more serious injuries in the workplace, smaller injuries can be just as costly as the big ones. Between 2013 and 2017, WorkSafe BC recorded 5,521 serious and fatal injuries – including those injured or killed as the result of a motor vehicle crash – while it recorded more than 4,900 claims for smaller injuries.

Strains and sprains made up the majority of those claims, with a total of 3,348. Those claims alone totaled nearly $70 million over five years. Fractures came next, with 689 reported to the tune of more than $51 million.

Some workplace accidents may be seen as just one of the costs of doing business, but does it have to be that way?

In that same five-year period, WorkSafe BC conducted more than 2,100 inspections on businesses classified under the general trucking banner. Of those inspections, just 25% of inspected companies did not receive some kind of warning, order, or follow-up for violations.

Most of these orders aren’t considered major violations. Just eight received warning letters or administrative penalties.

The most-issued citation was for not complying with a regulation that requires employers to have the equipment and supplies to immediately and adequately address first aid issues when they happen, and failing to take the appropriate action. Eighty-five employers faced that.

In an Ontario Ministry of Labour blitz conducted in February 2011, there were 1,089 workplaces inspected and 3,233 orders issued – an average of three per workplace. Just 84 of those were serious enough to warrant a “stop work” order.

The most frequently issued orders in that inspection were for failing to maintain equipment and facilities in good condition, or not taking reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers.

Ministry analysts said the majority of these violations happened during loading and unloading on docks, when safe practices weren’t observed, including failing to ensure vehicles were stopped and properly secured.

“This indicated shipping and receiving areas and related equipment may not be regularly inspected and maintained by the employer,” the ministry report said.

Trucks and trailers need to be immobilized before loading or unloading begins to prevent them from moving in any direction – including against the dock, which could lead to injuries or deaths due to falls, or being pinned if the truck does move.

Of the 15 workers who died while working in a shipping and receiving area from 2000-2010, most were pinned by a vehicle that moved when it wasn’t supposed to. In these cases, being pinned between a truck and dock, a truck and trailer, or two forklifts proved tragic.

Workers also died after being struck by falling or improperly secured items during the loading and unloading process.

Citations during the blitz were also frequently issued for failing to provide workers with information, instruction and supervision to protect their health and safety.

Training in material handling is key for all workers when it comes to loading and unloading, according to the Ontario Ministry of Labour. It’s something that may reduce the chance for catastrophes like the one in Kitchener.

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