The Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board marks its 75th year in 2005. Like all such Canadian boards, the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board is an administrative tribunal operating under the authority of the Workers’ Compensation Act, 1979, a provincial statute. The first Saskatchewan no-fault workers’ compensation legislation was passed in January 1929. Passage occurred within four weeks of the Gardiner government receiving the Anderson Royal Commission report recommending that Saskatchewan adopt the Meredith compensation system, already in place in Ontario, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, and Manitoba. Under the Meredith compensation model, civil liability laws for workplace injury were replaced by a statutory framework with five key features: no fault, collective employer liability, security of payment for injured workers, exclusive jurisdiction, and public administration by an independent body.
With a $25,000 start-up grant from the province, the new board was issuing benefits to injured workers, paying for injured workers’ hospital care and x-rays, collecting employer assessments, and engaging in industrial accident prevention by the summer of 1930. The original tripartite governance structure—three board members representing government, workers, and employers—remains unchanged after seventy-five years. These full-time members, appointed by an Order-in-Council, fulfill three general responsibilities: interpreting and administering the compensation act through policy, supervising the Workers’ Compensation Board administration, and acting as the final level of appeal. This structure acknowledges the founding principles of workers’ compensation, based on a “historic compromise” between workers and employers which abolished the right of workers to sue in the courts for work injury or disease in exchange for an employer-funded compensation system.
The founding stakeholders’ central role was further entrenched in 1945 when the Douglas government added the Committee of Review section to the Act. Committees of Review have broad scope to study workers’ compensation every four years. Every Committee of Review since the first in 1949 has submitted consensus recommendations by individuals representing Saskatchewan employers and organized workers. The 1978 Committee of Review was a pivotal influence on the Blakeney government’s decision in 1979 to replace the medical pension system with the wage loss system. A wage loss system calculates loss of earnings from the work injury, whereas a pension system assigns a monetary value to each type of injury. Saskatchewan was the first province to take this step.
Over seven decades, the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board has mirrored the province’s growing and diversifying economy. In its first year of operation the Board registered 4,476 employer accounts, collected $530,000 in employer assessments, and paid $401,000 in benefits on 3,969 injury claims.
In contrast, annual gross Board revenues in 2000-03 were $220 million. Typically, employer premiums accounted for 60%–80% of revenues. For the same period, injury claim expenditures (mostly wage loss replacement and health care treatment) ranged from $200-$240 million for nearly 40,000 claims. Projected liabilities rise each year for future injured worker benefits. These obligations reached $802 million in 2003, of which a total of 95% was set aside in investment funds.
Tribunals such as workers’ compensation boards have administrative safeguards in place to correct adjudication errors. This appellate role has been filled since 1930 by the three Board members. In 1985, an intermediate appeal level, known as the Appeals Committee, was established by the Board. Together they respond to about 1,100 appeals each year. Many injured workers who lodge appeals are assisted by the Office of the Workers’ Advocate. This independent office, the first of its kind in Canada, was created in 1973, expressly to aid claimants who challenged Board claim decisions.
Benefits for Saskatchewan injured workers and surviving dependents have grown more generous and comprehensive over seventy-five years. For example, between 1930 and the 1980s, the wage loss benefit has risen from 66% of gross earnings to the current level of 90% of take-home earnings. The funding of workers’ compensation is the sole responsibility of employers, not the provincial government. Employer premiums, along with investment earnings, meet the costs of administering the compensation system. While the Board actively promotes injury prevention and safety to encourage fewer work accidents, premium levels are set to reflect current work injury and occupational disease costs. In Saskatchewan, average Workers’ Compensation Board premium levels are typically among the lowest in Canada.
Workers’ compensation stakeholders have high accountability expectations of the Board. Here, Saskatchewan is a pacesetter through the Board’s regular appearances before legislators, public annual general meetings and Compensation Institutes, and the implementation of Committee of Review stakeholder recommendations. In 2003, the Board strengthened its accountability with the appointment of a past Saskatchewan deputy ombudsman as its first “fair practices officer.” The office receives and investigates inquiries and concerns when injured workers and employers believe a policy, procedure, or practice has not been applied fairly.
The transition from economies dominated by resources and manufacturing employment to the knowledge-based service economy is a significant factor in a lower injury rate and a changing injury mix for all workers’ compensation jurisdictions. Specifically, soft-tissue (sprains and strains) injuries are now more prevalent than traumatic accident injury claims. Advancing medical knowledge has also established stronger occupational linkages to more diseases. Collectively, Saskatchewan workplaces post one of Canada’s highest work injury rates. With the upward creep of health care costs, it will be important to reduce work injuries to help hold future compensation expenditure growth in check and reduce human suffering. Nothing is more important to workers’ compensation, the Anderson Commission said, than the prevention of accidents. Except for an interlude ending in the 1990s, the Workers’ Compensation Board has been active in injury prevention from its inception. An important element in injury prevention is firm-based experience rating. These financial incentives are designed to stimulate workplace safety and occupational health investments that reduce injury and occupational disease. Most recently, in 2003 the Board’s strategic plan incorporated injury prevention to harness the efforts of WorkSafe Saskatchewan and workplace parties to achieve the goal of reducing work injuries by 20% by 2007.