WCB Shift Towards Performance Based Standards?

Part of the WCB Core Review process will conclude this week. Some changes are becoming obvious.

A quick look at some WCB stats and it is easy to see why the agency has attracted so much attention from the Liberals. According to this year’s WCB business plan it faces a $422-million loss along with a $341-million unfunded liability if we stay on the currrent track. That unvarnished fact alone should attract some major alterations in course. But it is not the only statistical trend likely to compound the notion that the Board is due for profound reform of its structure and purview.

During the 90s reported claims dropped by 15 percent and injury rates dropped by 35 percent. Meanwhile WCB staff grew by 60 percent and claim durations increased by 54 percent. In 1990 there were 2,700 regulations. In 1998 there were 4,000. British Columbia’s safety regulations are more wordier than Alberta’s by almost three times. Employer groups claim the province’s workforce is changing to less onerous and dangerous occupations, yet claims costs continue to grow.

Of course, viewing these figures out of their proper context can be misleading. For instance, the increased staff at WCB may be the reason for the decline in claims and injury rates due to improvements in pro-active training and monitoring. Nevertheless, these kinds of trends and others are under the scrutiny of two major government core reviews. Both reports, one focusing on WCB service delivery and the other on governance and major policy and regulation, are expected in the near future.

Reforming and restructuring WCB lies finally with Graham Bruce Mininster of Skills Development and Labour. This is obviously a busy portfolio and as any recent headline scan will show you the Liberals are not shy when it comes to upsetting conventions, contracts or agencies; even to the point of completely dismantling them. For instance, we are likely to see drastic changes to the WCB appellate process which attracts 25,000 claims annually. This system is subject to routine overuse and abuse by both employees, trade unions and employers. Even the Board has been accused of not following its own appeal rules. The appellate process amounts to an expensive litigious treadmill responsible for creating a small industry around injury appeals. Expect to see a much more restrictive appellate structure in the future.

Critics of WCB insist it is a principle agent in the increasing costs of safety and compensation. They will likely urge government to reduce the board and its administration back to a basic insurance sheme. Some thinking has gone so far as to question the value of regulations at all since employees generally work in ignorance of the array of regulations that overarch their activities. Models in jurisdictions like Alberta, Ontario and as far away as Australia are being discussed. In Australia employers are generally responsible for claims up to ten days. Ontario’s definition of chronic stress injury is viewed as far more workable by employer group’s than British Columbia’s.

Some themes have emerged during the course of the ongoing core reviews, particularly the principle of performance-based standards. This idea is notable for two reasons: its widespread use throughout Liberal strategic policy thinking; and the absence of any specific definition of what it means in practice. Anticipating the performance-based trend WCB began exploring some options internally leading to discussion around the application of Section 33 First Aid regulations. A WCB review of these regs has been in the works under the aegis of the last government. A draft set of recommendations was produced but now is buried in the new Liberal agenda. The WSCA had contributed a number of proposals to this lapsed process.

Based on the WSCA’s reporting from the WCB Employers’ Forum, an industry group formed to liaise dircectly with the WCB executive, draft developments around substituting Section 33 regs for a performance-based approach may be available by spring. The gist of this would move WCB away from a prescriptive approach to First Aid. Practically this means contractors would not be told how many band aids to count in their kits. At the same time businesses and industry groups would be trusted to do their own risk and hazard assessments. From that they would develop appropriate practice levels.

This would obviously reduce regulation and it would very likely eliminate some redundant and inappropriate rules. But it clearly increases industry’s obligation to manage its affairs on its own, which in the long run could actually mean more work. Although inconvenient, having your hand held by government and told precisely what to do, may in practice be simpler than going through the risk analysis to arrive at the optimum number of band aids required. Regardless, government has it made it clear it is getting out of the hand-holding business of prescriptive interference in the affairs of business.

In this context the role of industry health and safety associations has more direct relevance to groups like silvicultural contractors. Rather than each business hire a consultant to design a performance-base set of practices and standards for their First Aid and safety operations a large umbrella group like the WSCA could do the same for its members at a fraction of the cost. The WSCA is moving in this direction in discussions with other industry safety groups and consultants.