'Damaged' Fingers?

Minimized Employee Accident Report Forms Lead to $600,000 in Fines and Penalties

By By Linda Lamoureux and Wayne Pushka

The Canadian salt mining company had a stellar employee safety record. In the latter ’90s, the U.S.-based Salt Institute lauded the firm for having the lowest injury rate among salt producers in North America. But the safety record wasn’t worth its salt – investigators found that the company had intentionally downplayed a number of serious injuries, which resulted in the company receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in government rebate money.

A sharp-eyed claims adjudicator in the Windsor, Ontario, office of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) first found the irregularity that led to our investigation. While reviewing an employee’s accident report filed by the salt mining company, the adjudicator found the worker had “damaged two fingers on his left hand” but hadn’t recorded any lost time from work. However, a Windsor hospital had sent the WSIB office a bill for treatment that indicated the worker had spent four days in the hospital. When the adjudicator called the mining company, the company told her that the worker had been hospitalized for a pre-existing angina condition. Suspicious about the irregularities, she reported matters to our department, the Special Investigations Branch (SIB), of the WSIB.

So began our six-month investigation that eventually resulted in guilty pleas from the mining company, and a $600,000 fine with penalties – the largest ever settlement in Ontario under the 1997 Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.

For 70 percent of Ontario’s workers, the WSIB is a no-fault insurance system funded by employers that provides benefits if they sustain injuries in the course of employment, or if they contract a recognized occupational disease. The WSIB requires Schedule 1 and 2 employers to register with the WSIB. (Schedule 1 employers, who are collectively liable for all costs of their claims, pay premiums to the insurance fund. Schedule 2 employers, who are individually liable for all costs of their claims plus administration fees, don’t pay premiums to the insurance fund.) The other 30 percent who aren’t covered can choose to obtain their insurance from private companies. In exchange for employers’ funding of the workplace safety and insurance system, injured workers forgo the right to sue.

The salt mining company is a prominent Fortune 500 company with three Canadian mines and employing more than 1,000 people.

In November 1997, four SIB fraud examiners began interviewing more than 100 witnesses, including company and union officials, injured workers, and WSIB staff such as adjudicators, revenue specialists, and analysts.

Discrepancies immediately became apparent with the Windsor injured worker’s claim. His accident report reported he had damaged “two fingers on his left hand” but actually he caught his hand in the rotating shaft on a conveyer and tore off the tips of two fingers at the joints. He spent four days in the hospital after reconstructive surgery. For the next four months while he healed, he would come to the plant each day, punch his time card in and out with “No Lost Time” recorded, and leave. The company continued to pay his full salary.

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