Report recommends major changes to Workers' Compensation in Alberta

The Government of Alberta has released the report of the independent review panel on modernizing the province’s Workers' Compensation Board, with 60 recommendations to improve the no fault system for compensating workers who are injured or make ill at work and making the system fairer to working people.

The three-member panel – made up of labour relations consultant Mia Norrie, the chair, lawyer John Carpenter, a partner with Chivers Carpenter, and labour relations consultant Pemme Cunliffe – summed up the thrust of their recommendations as putting “the health and well-being of injured workers at the centre of the workers’ compensation system.”

“This should be the focus around which the system’s policies, processes and decisions are made. And it should be the shared goal that all partners have in mind when they approach the system and towards which all the partners should work,” the report states.

Perviously when there have been disagreements, the report said, WCB management has leaned toward managing claims “in aggressive accordance with strict rules, even when the resulting decisions fly in the face of common sense. This raises frustration among workers and employers alike and it contributes to a perception that the WCB has a ‘culture of denial.’” 

“Rather than decision-making that focuses on assisting people with their injuries, illnesses or concerns, the system’s decision making currently focuses on efficient management of claims,” the report says. “Too often, it seems, the latter is given attention at the expense of the former.”

Fourteen recommendations deal with shifting the culture of the WCB toward a “worker-centred” orientation. These include prohibiting the use of performance pay, pay-at-risk, bonuses or other programs that tie the compensation of WCB employees to performance measures.

Another seven recommendations deal with taking a better approach to health. These include enabling workers to use their own physicians, establishing a medical dispute resolution mechanism and educating the medical community about the Workers Compensation system and its process. 

Nineteen recommendations deal with the return to work process. These include: Amending the Workers' Compensation Act to obligate employers to help employees return to work, to enable the appeals commission to take note of commonly seen illnesses and certain types of employment, and to require employers to continue covering injured workers under their existing health benefits programs, as well as to amend the term “first responder” to offer presumptive coverage of PTSD to additional occupations.

Seventeen additional recommendations deal with making the system more sustainable. These include: Amending the Act to ensure funds in the Accident Fund are held in trust for the benefit of workers and employers to support a sustainable system, streamlining the appeals approach and publishing decisions of the Appeals Commission on line, and ending the practice of distributing “surplus” funds to employers.

The final three recommendations call for changes to support prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses. These include requiring safety associations funded through WCB funds to satisfy oversight requirements, and amending the Act to give the WCB authority to collect information relevant to the prevention of workplace injury and disease and disclose it to the Labour department’s Occupational Health and Safety section.