By Jensen, Randy on October 24, 2020.
Over the past few years more attention and resources have been given to address the problem of orphaned and abandoned oil wells in Alberta, but we continue to fail injured and abandoned oilfield workers.
Both are a legacy left behind by an oil and gas industry which has profited mightily in Alberta for decades, but whereas more resources have been dedicated recently to help address some of the orphan wells issue, too often oilfield workers with complex injuries have to fight the Workers Compensation Board for decades to get the assistance which is their due.
Fort Macleod resident Maurice Major was permanently disabled on the job in 1985 through no fault of his own.
“I was working in the oil rig,” he explains, “and I had been there quite a few years, and the company hired a new driller to work the controls. I was trying to be as careful as I could be, but he turned the rotary table on which caught the pliers, and it ended up hitting my leg. So my leg got broke. The slips were catching on the pipe as they were turning and they were whipping around. I laid down as low as I could so I wouldn’t get my head knocked off. I put my arm up to protect my face, and it broke my arm instead of my face. As I went back I hit the bushings with the back of my neck, and I felt the sharpest pain I have ever felt in my life. And yet, that injury was denied by the Compensation Board.”
Rewind a few years, and a younger Major, like many Albertans, left school to work and took a job in the oil patch. There were no benefits and no guarantees of long-term employment, but the money was good. He worked his way around the industry, and in 1985 was working for an Alberta-grown, family owned drilling company which has since been bought out by a larger corporate conglomerate and no longer exists. The company offered private insurance to its workers to compensate them for potential work injury on top of the premiums it paid to the publicly administered Workers Compensation Board. Unfortunately, the insurance policy wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, in Major’s case.
“I had insurance with my company, but it said on my insurance policy you have to lose a limb, or something like that, to claim it,” he remembers. “I lost a disc in my neck, but that wasn’t even considered. It was just people trying to get out of paying. Even though you had an insurance policy with the company, they were protecting themselves, and didn’t want to pay anything.”
The injuries from that 1985 accident were complex and debilitating. Not only was Major in constant pain, but because of the break to his leg he was left with a slightly shortened gait on one side.
After being denied the insurance coverage, he took his case to the Workers Compensation Board, which is where Major’s agony really began.
“I think they treat each and every one of us injured workers as something that is disposable,” he says. “I have fought them for 35 years, and I know I don’t have another 35 years. Compensation was supposed to be looking after me, but they never have. If you don’t have a doctor or lawyer on your side, you just can’t get anywhere in dealing with the WCB, regardless.”
After this first of many fights to come with the WCB, Major was finally awarded $100 per month for his injuries.
Fast forward several years, Major is now permanently disabled with a brain injury suffered on another job site in 1988, which again he was not compensated for by the WCB due to lost paperwork, ending his working career, on top of his neck and leg injuries from the 1985 incident. He is still receiving about $100 per month. He hired a lawyer to challenge his level of compensation from the WCB, and is still having to fight the system all the way. He was finally awarded $700 per month, and has only received a small cost-of-living increase each year since.
By this time, he is living every day with acute neck pain and is developing other problems in his spine, noted by doctors in 2007, due to his shortened gait. Various doctors and therapists agree the deterioration of his lumbar area is likely a result of his original injury suffered in 1985. Again the WCB rejects Major’s claim for further compensation, and he uses up every avenue of appeal taking the case all the way to the Appeals Commission in 2019. The WCB hires their own independent medical expert to review one portion of Major’s claim. The expert concludes after one brief examination with a limited scope of information provided by the Appeals Commission, in his opinion, Major is suffering deterioration in the spine due to age. Discounting all other medical opinions spanning decades, and the legal arguments presented by Major and his attorney, Viqar Quraishi, the Appeals Commission rejects Major’s claim on Aug. 19, 2020.
Quraishi, who specializes in injured worker claims of this sort, says Major’s case is sadly common in Alberta.
“Injured workers in Alberta have given up their rights to sue an employer in exchange for compensation (from the WCB), which they are not getting as they should,” he states. “In the United States this is run by the courts. They have the right to sue the employer to get proper compensation benefits.”
Quraishi says one possible avenue for Major to take would be to challenge the WCB in court, and he has hope a recent Supreme Court ruling in December 2019 might open that avenue for him. In the past, Quiraishi says, the courts have generally ruled in favour of the WCB because they could only rule on the “reasonableness” of the case – that is not whether the judgment was right or wrong but whether or not the right statutes were considered and referenced in the decision. But now the Supreme Court has ruled the courts may now also consider the “correctness” of such administrative decisions.
The problem for a person like Major, who is 78 years old and living on a limited income, is the cost of testing this new precedent in court.
“My lawyer wanted $15,000 to take it to the Court of Queen’s Bench,” Major explains, “and it is more than we can spend on something like that. Another consultant I talked to said it would cost $7,000 to have doctors look again at my file. Doctors to look at my file for $7,000? My hands just seem to be tied either way.”
Nonetheless, says Kim Hurley, a former resolution specialist at the WCB’s Dispute Resolution and Decision Review Body and current owner of Injured Workers Advocacy Services which works as a consultant for former oilfield workers like Major, the medical route might be the best one to take.
“If he (Major) comes up with new (medical) evidence, he could submit that to the Appeals Commission, and possibly get a new hearing,” she says. “What a lot of my clients do is we arrange our own independent medical exams privately, and we are in charge of sending in the information to make sure they get everything that the WCB’s IME doctors didn’t get access to. My clients pay for it upfront, and then we send the report in as new evidence then they are reimbursed by the WCB for that report. A lot of times that new evidence will allow the Appeal Commission to reconsider and overturn. It’s a long process. Even doing it that way, you are looking at least a year.”
Hurley says she left the WCB after 13 years because, like Major and so many of the former oilfield workers she assists, she came to see the WCB as an organization that did not have the best interests of injured workers in mind in its practices, but rather the bottom line.
“I can tell you even if a resolution specialist feels they want to overturn customer service because they made a wrong decision, they do not have a veto card,” she explains. “They have to convince the case manager or supervisor and their manager that the decision was wrong, and if the supervisor or manager disagree the DRDRB specialist is not allowed to change the decision. It is all a matter of cost and politics, not a matter of what decisions are right. It is definitely about money.”
Hurley says, in her opinion, the WCB and the province continue to leave injured oilfield workers behind.
“I think we have let them down,” she says. “It’s the industry that has been keeping our province and our country going for decades, and these workers are the ones who are the most under-compensated when they have injuries at WCB.
“It should not be this hard,” she says.
After his most recent appeal was rejected, Major feels he is at the end of his rope after his over three-decades-long fight against the WCB for fair compensation.
“My doctor recently saw me, and he told me I should take all this (claim) file and burn it before it destroys me,” he says. “And that’s what it is doing basically. I can’t let it go. I am trying to find some way I can still carry on, but I know I don’t have a lot of time left.”
“I would like the Compensation Board to own up to my injuries, both mentally and physically,” Major states, “and compensate me adequately for all I have had to go through. It has been a total nightmare every step of the way.”
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