Two years into the pandemic, Saskatchewan workers now face new challenges
Working with Risk | Stephen Whitworth | April 7, 2022
Saskatchewan’s first Covid-19 case was announced on March 12, 2020 and first death on March 30. Twenty-five months later, the pandemic remains the biggest health and safety threat facing Saskatchewan workers — but the shape its menace takes is more complicated.
Let’s start with the obvious: 1,229 Saskatchewan residents have died from Covid-19 so far, with 20 of those being reported in the March 20–26 reporting period, so despite the premature end of mask and vaccine mandates, this thing’s far from over. And workplaces, obviously, are still excellent environments to contract the ever-mutating, more-contagious-than-ever virus — especially in jobs where workers come into contact with large numbers of people.
That said, damage has been heavily mitigated by vaccines, which not only reduce the risk of transmission but limit the severity of infections. We’re far from being in a position to get cocky — vaccines are armour, not an impenetrable forcefield, and it’s possible for a fully vaccinated and boosted individual to still become very sick from Covid — but vaccinated workers are arguably safer than they’ve been for quite awhile, especially if they still wear masks.
One thing that has changed, though, is the divide between the majority of Canadians (vaccinated, willing to wear masks) and a minority of vaccine-phobes and skeptics (at best) and conspiracy theorists and anti-government “plandemic” radicals spouting increasingly unhinged views.
The tension and divisiveness between the two camps is causing stress and inciting anger that’s wearing Canadians down — and workplaces are not immune.
Think of the servers confronted by angry anti-vaxxers, or retail workers harassed by self-righteous so-called Freedom activists. Think of teachers, social workers and others who already have potentially tense public interactions in their jobs.
Think of workplaces where co-workers argue about social distancing, or managers fuel conflict by discouraging voluntary masking. Besides increasing the risk someone will catch Covid (and spread it to co-workers), these conflicts add monstrous stress to workers who are already suffering from pandemic burnout.
This stress could well be on track to becoming as toxic as the coronavirus that spawned it. But it’s just another risk Saskatchewan workers must contend with.
Pandemic: Year Two Blues
Covid’s collateral health risks are definitely on Tracey Sauer’s radar. The Saskatchewan Government Employees’ Union president, who is just wrapping up her first year in the position, has seen SGEU members battle through pandemic stress and sickness on the job, sometimes with less employer support than they need.
To Sauer, the public employees she represents are hard workers who are proud of overcoming the pandemic’s challenges.
“Many of our members are frontline workers who have been going to their workplace every day during the pandemic,” says Sauer. “It doesn’t matter if there’s Covid or not—our members continue to serve the public.
“With Covid, it was the added exposure,” says Sauer. “Many of our members are health care workers or acute care. We have corrections workers, social service workers in child protection and family services, group home and shelter staff, and liquor store employees along with many others. It’s a broad group of workers, working across Saskatchewan, and Covid did not prevent our members from going to work every day.”
There have been challenges. One of the first has with corrections workers, who weren’t prioritized for vaccination early on, says Sauer. Neither were a lot of health care workers.
As well, there have been fights over making sure workers have adequate protective equipment.
Then there’s the current issue of Covid reports, which the Saskatchewan government changed to weekly from daily—making it more difficult for SGEU members to assess their risk at work.
“Giving people the information they need to assess their own risks so they can keep co-workers and the public safe is never a wrong decision,” says Sauer. “We feel there should be more reporting, at the very least. Covering things up is never a good plan in any organization, and definitely not when it’s the government.”
Barbara Cape would likely agree. The SIEU-West President oversees a roughly 13,000-member union with members in health care, education and other sectors. Ten to 11 thousand of those work directly with the public.
Cape says Saskatchewan workers were at a disadvantage even before the pandemic began.
“I think we all know how frontline members are burned out and exhausted but this has been the state of their lives even before the pandemic,” says Cape. “In health care, education and the community-based organizations sector there have been incredibly bad low staffing levels that have left people struggling to provide the needed level of service and care.”
“The pandemic exposed it to the public, but this isn’t really new.”
Cape says it’s difficult to know how many burned-out workers are leaving public service jobs — that kind of data isn’t shared with SEIU-West. But she has an idea.
“Unfortunately the SHA doesn’t give us all that information,” Cape says. “But we give retiring members a gift. And based on the retirement gifts that we’ve been sending out, we know that retirements are one the rise.”
Fast Stats: Worker Safety In Saskatchewan
There’s some good news: Saskatchewan’s workplace injury rates are on the decline according to a 2021 Workers’ Compensation Board release. From 2008 to 2020, our workplace total injury rate dropped by more than 56 per cent. This is a result of efforts from workers, safety leaders, employers and labour unions, and deserves recognition. But before we get too excited, let’s remember that every workplace injury in Saskatchewan is one too many, and we can’t become complacent in our efforts to promote health and safety in workplace culture.
April 28 is the National Day of Mourning for workers who are injured or killed on the job. The day focuses our attention on workplace tragedies and reminds us there’s more work to do in the area of workplace health and safety. Here are some statistics on on-the-job injuries that will hopefully get conversations going and safe practises rolling. /Sherry McCormick
INJURIES ON THE JOB
On average, Saskatchewan reports more than 21,000 work-related injuries each year that require medical treatment and/or time off. This includes occupational diseases caused by work.
KILLED AT WORK
Workplace fatalities include death on the job and worksite injuries resulting in death. Saskatchewan reported 31 workplace fatalities in 2021. These individuals will be commemorated in the Saskatchewan Legislature on the National Day of Mourning. The names of those who lost their lives to work will be observed, and the Canadian Labour Congress will inscribe their names in Ottawa’s National Registry.
ILLNESS, INJURY AND MISSED WORK
Under certain conditions, employees are protected from discriminatory action if they are absent from work due to their own illness or injury or due to the illness or injury of a family member. Saskatchewan’s labour movement continues to call for mandatory sick days in all jobs.
WORKERS ON COMPENSATION
According to the 2021 Workers’ Compensation release, total accepted injury claims went down by 16 per cent to 17,944 from 21,473 in 2020.
SAFETY AND PREVENTION
Every injury in the workplace should be considered predictable and preventable. Eliminating hazards requires cooperation between employers, workers and customers/clients. You can find guidelines promoting workplace health and safety through the Workers’ Compensation Board, WorkSafe Saskatchewan and the Government of Saskatchewan.