Last month, WorkSafeNB held their annual general meeting in Fredericton and provided an update on the progress being made on lowering the highest rate in the country. While stakeholders are not expecting a large drop in premiums for 2020, the information provided by President and CEO Doug Jones was mostly a good news story. 

Two key reports are driving many of the activities undertaken by WorkSafe over the past year or so. The Auditor General’s two-part audit from June 2018 and January 2019 found that the legislative changes implemented by government in 2015 had diminished WorkSafe’s independence and impacted operations. It also found that the organization’s strategic plan and board practices require improvement – tough to hear for any organization, but the management of WorkSafe should be commended for accepting the findings and facing the challenges head on. Mr Jones’ also identified several procedural issues at WorkSafeNB that need improvement, a result of an organization-wide examination of best practices, road blocks and the like: a result of good leadership.  

The Auditor General also found that a ‘return to work’ goal was not embedded in WorkSafeNB’s processes, which has been identified not only as a major driver of costs, but also a hinderance to worker recovery – the sooner the employee can return to work, the better their health outcomes are, WorkSafe has previously reported. The numbers presented last month bear this out. From a high of 92% return to work after six months in Manitoba, New Brunswick ranks last in the country and has been declining – 79% in 2014, 77% in 2017 and 73% in 20181. This is perhaps the main area where all stakeholders (employers, employees, medical practitioners, WorkSafe) have to work together to find solutions that benefit all. 

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The second report – the Ministerial Task Force on WorkSafeNB provided a road map to putting the system back in balance. Some of the key findings of that report were to return policy-making authority to the board of directors, occupational health and safety improvements, eliminating the three-day unpaid waiting period for employees and enhanced rehabilitation as well as return to work practices. Both elected officials and WorkSafe deserve credit for recognizing the severity of the issue and acting swiftly to initiate the remedy.  

Mr Jones’ presentation made it clear that small businesses (who are least able to manage large jumps in costs) are feeling the brunt of the high average rate, with 92% of employers covered by WorkSafeNB having fewer than 20 employees (similarly nearly 90% of our members have fewer than 20 employees). A sustainable, affordable system is important for all parties – employers and workers; a higher rate does not mean injured workers are better off. At the annual general meeting employers and workers were told that rates will likely be between $2.40 and $2.85 for 2020, which isn’t ideal by any means, but the underlying factors are impacting the rate to move in the right direction. This does not mean any of the stakeholders should become complacent, however, as New Brunswick will still be close to the highest rate in Canada and our members are telling us this is not sustainable. 

The rates did not spike over the past three years due to increased injuries in the workplace (the opposite is true) and the proposed solution isn’t about taking away benefits – the legislative changes in 2015 that provoked the out-of-control rates did not add any benefits. Mr. Jones stated it quite plainly on November 27, 2018: “Where the cost savings will occur is that the worker’s compensation system will now not be paying for diseases or injuries that are keeping people away from work for reasons other than workplace injury.” He followed up last month by saying that a number of WorkSafeNB files have since been moved over to the public healthcare system as they were not work-related. 

Overall, WorkSafeNB has improved its external communications greatly since the rate crisis began in 2016 – the business community has appreciated their efforts. Better communication on all sides is also going to have to be a big part of ensuring a sustainable system now and into the future. We have collectively made great strides since 2016, but we can’t reasonably hope to improve our return to work rates (or the system itself) without better communication between employers, injured workers, medical practitioners and WorkSafeNB. We need safeguards, processes and procedures in place – but if those just lead to walls and silos, then we really haven’t learned anything, and we’ll have a hard time meeting our sustainability goals. 

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with nearly 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperit 

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