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Can creative sentencing lead to better workplace safety outcomes?

Russell Hixson
Can creative sentencing lead to better workplace safety outcomes?

Basic fines aren’t always the best way to go when punishing companies for workplace incidents. 

Researchers in Alberta have growing evidence that shows creative sentencing can lead to better safety outcomes. 

They wanted to find out how companies learn from their mistakes and how change happens in an industry. Lianne Lefsrud, associate professor of engineering safety and risk management at the University of Alberta, Heather Eckert, associate professor in the department of economics at the university, and Joel Gehman, professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University teamed up to find out.

They developed a testable model of how different types of regulations affect a company’s safety performance by examining the injury rates of Albertan employers found guilty and sentenced for environmental and occupational, health and safety infractions from 2005 to 2018.

Lefsrud explained before her career in academia, she worked for many large companies and learned firsthand how they deal with workplace incidents. 

“Many operating companies will set aside money,” she said, noting one company she worked for had a $200 million contingency fund for incidents or spills. “It is seen as the cost of doing business. And $100,000 in the grand scheme of things for many companies is a rounding error, not even a decimal point.” 

Being in Alberta put Lefsrud in the unique position to study the outcomes of creative sentencing.

Creative sentencing is a range of penalty options that have been available to Alberta courts since the mid-‘90s.

For example, in 2016, the Town of Whitecourt and Woodlands County did unauthorized landfill operations.  A creative sentencing order diverted $95,000 to two projects, training for landfill operation and management and a study regarding how poplar trees aid in absorbing and cleaning waste-tainted water from the waste cells. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick also have similar tools for judges. 

“It’s not just about punishment, but also it’s about restitution and learning,” she said. 

The team was able to utilize comprehensive data from Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Labour and Immigration.

The team found creative sentencing was more effective and had a longer-lasting deterrence effect for companies. 

Lefsrud explained the data shows traditional sentencing of fines or imprisonment saw injury rates rebound within two years. But creative sentencing saw injury rates remain lower for at least two years.

“Nobody ever knew if this worked,” said Lefsrud. “Nobody had ever tested it before. Folks had an inkling that it worked but didn’t know how or why it worked.” 

She explained creative sentencing requires more work from the courts and offenders but she hopes with her team’s data, there is a good case to use it more often. 

“It’s easier for companies to just pay a fine and continue on,” she said. “It’s easier for the justice department because they can just take the money and it goes into the general coffers. You can move on and don’t have to dig too deep.” 

Lefsrud said the root causes of incidents are often not simple, but finding them can improve all employers.

“It usually comes down to organizational failures like not following proper procedures, not providing resources, not paying attention to detail,” said Lefsrud. “You have to get down to those latent causes. It’s often not one person that caused it, it’s a bunch of failures and it’s almost always organizational.”

The team is also looking at how creative sentencing can lead to broader changes. Lefsrud said they are seeing early signs in their research that suggest it can.


Follow the author on Twitter @RussellReports.

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