The 2010 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 14, 2011.
The Calgary Herald published a series called ‘Worked to Death‘ which exposed the human costs of Alberta’s economic boom – sloppy on-site safety practices and lax enforcement leading to a disturbing number of annual workplace deaths. After this in-depth series was published the Alberta government took more aggressive measures including the creation of an online database listing safety violations, more work-site safety blitzes, and a promise to hire more safety inspectors.
Your Excellency, Madame, Senator, Honoured Guests.
In 2006, teenager Joel Balfour from Vernon, B.C., was killed near Grande Cache, Alberta, when a backhoe bucket struck him in the head as he worked on an oil and gas project.
The next year, Darina Valentik of Belleville, Ontario, died in the path of a slow-moving railcar, her foot caught in the train track and the 34-year-old worked in Fort McMurray.
And Donna Noonan, a 54-year-old baker from Edmonton, died in 2007 after tripping while carrying doughnuts at a Tim Hortons in that city.
These three workers came from different parts of Canada. All had recently started new jobs in Alberta. All wanted to made a living during the province’s unprecedented economic boom. All three died in its wake.
Between 1999 and 2008, as thousands of newcomers streamed into Alberta for jobs, 1,285 workers lost their lives. Several death, particularly in the oilsands, caught the attention of Herald editors, who felt the issue warranted deeper exploration.
A year of research, enterprise reporting and writing by Kelly Cryderman and Renata D’Aliesio – along with weeks of work by a team of Herald photographers, researchers, editors, graphic artists and online journalists – culminated in the publication of the series, ‘Worked to Death‘, in June 2010.
From the start, we faced major obstacles.
The government refused to release a list of Alberta employers with the poorest safety performance records or release overall company safety records – records it had promised to disclose seven years earlier.
Being blocked access to vital public information prompted D’Aliesio to pore over every available public fatality report into a work-site death that occurred between 2003 to 2009.
The painstaking process involved reading more than 3,000 pages of complex investigation documents and took more than eight weeks to complete. Drawing from these reports, a computer database was created to track trends and safety violations.
We found that:
– In 2008, Alberta was the least likely province to penalize workplace safety offenders;
– Of the fatality reports examined by the Herald, provincial investigators found safety violations or problems in three-quarters of the deaths. Yet only one-third of these cases were taken to court.
– And companies convicted of safety violations in an employee’s death weren’t monitored to see if they had EVEN paid their fines. Millions in court-imposed penalties remained uncollected without repercussion, a revelation that led the government to go after these employers.
The series triggered real action.
Improvements to Alberta’s workplace safety enforcement system have since been made, such as the hiring of more investigators, the publication of company safety records and additional work-site safety blitzes.
Critically, this project have families of dead employees a voice, as we interviewed 44 families of fallen workers.
“I hope that the series opened eyes and will help people to see the importance of workplace safety,” said Adele Card, whose mother died after the fall at the Tim Horton’s in Edmonton. “It shows that the statistics consist of people that someone loved and miss very much.”
In this era of breaking news and non-stop online reporting, the support of Herald’s editors Lorne Motley and Monica Zurowski – as well as the support of the publisher, the newspaper, and the PostMedia chain – to invest such resources in such important civic journalism must be commended.
Finally, during the midst of this series, one of our own colleagues died while working on the job in Afghanistan.
I’d like to commemorate this series to our friend and outstanding reporter, Michelle Lang. She inspires us everyday to be better journalists, and better people.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 14, 2011.