After three consecutive years of increasing workers compensation premiums, employers in New Brunswick are about to get a reprieve. Rates are projected to fall by about 25 cents per $100 in payroll, reducing the average assessment from $2.65, which ties Nova Scotia for the highest in the country, to about $2.40 or possibly less. WorkSafeNB president and CEO Douglas Jones said recent changes to legislation have helped reduce costs. But he said more could be done to improve workplace safety culture, especially in the province's 12,000 small businesses.
The death of a 22-year-old tow-truck driver in Kouchibouguac on Wednesday brings the number of acute workplace fatalities, meaning they occurred as a result of sudden injury on the job, this year in New Brunswick to six. The annual average, over the past decade, is under four.
Jones said his long-term goal is to further reduce rates to about $2 per $100 of payroll within two to three years and well below that in the next five years while also improving benefits. While he said that may sound implausible, other provinces are already there.
He pointed to Manitoba, where premiums are assessed at less than $1 per $100 in payroll, and maximum insurable earnings are capped at $127,000. Albertans pay $1.08 and there is no cap. In New Brunswick, the cap is set at $64,800.
A few years ago, a perceived crisis at WorkSafeNB prompted the creation of a ministerial task force comprised of nine members, including employer and worker representatives. Among other things, the group recommended the law be changed to curb the power of the Workers' Compensation Appeals Tribunal, which came into effect in 2015. The tribunal had a high rate of overturning cases that it heard.
Doing its job
That rate was 80 per cent in the first year, 75 per cent in the second year, and 45 per cent in the third year, according to tribunal chair Daniel Theriault. He told CBC News in a 2018 interview that it was the tribunal's duty to make sure that WorkSafeNB followed the law. Those decisions increased payouts by as much as $100 million per year, concluded the task force.
Jones said the tribunal was just doing its job.
"I wouldn't put any of the blame on the appeals tribunal," he said. "We've been cleaning up some of the legislation now that we should have done two or three years ago."
He added they have to make sure that workers compensation is providing benefits for injuries that occur at a workplace. "So, for example, if somebody in the past four or five years, if they were injured and, during the course of rehabilitation, they were diagnosed with another disease that kept them away from work … the way the legislation was written, we could not terminate benefits even if they were able to go back to work, because they were being hindered by this other disease. "That's something that would normally be covered by public health care or private disability insurance, but it was being borne by the workers compensation system and that's not what it was intended to do."
Jones said savings have also been found by changing the way hearing-loss claims are managed. He said the system was paying for hearing losses that were likely associated with aging, not just those that were work-related.
More changes needed
Looking ahead, Jone said he'd like to see more efficient reporting of workplace accidents and injured workers back on the job, sooner.
One of the biggest cost drivers for WorkSafeNB is time away from work. Jones said it would help if an employer's duty to accommodate an injured worker were embedded in the Workers' Compensation Act.