Out of the woods

Strong partnership overcomes challenges of helping injured workers in rural Alberta sawmill

Employer takes the lead in helping injured workers
return to work

Rob Irwin takes it personally when an employee gets hurt at work; Vanderwell Contractors is a family-owned business, and the people who work at the sawmill are considered as such.

“There’s no job worth an injury,” says Rob, the company’s health and safety coordinator. “So when someone gets hurt, I consider it a failure in one way or another of our safety management system.

“Unfortunately, failures happen. But we do whatever we can to support our people—and WCB is a big part of that.”

Rob takes the lead when it comes to supporting his workers’ recovery. He knows how important it is to be involved in every conversation. He knows his workplace and his community, and the resources at his disposal.


“We have a great partnership (with WCB)—and that partnership is something I will continue to nurture.”
Rob Irwin, health and safety coordinator, Vanderwell Contractor


Coming up with creative return-to-work solutions, keeping the worker top of mind

And because the mill is three hours from the nearest urban centre, he knows how important it can be to come up with creative return-to-work solutions.

An example?

When one of his employees suffered a knee injury, the worker needed access to certain exercise equipment that would have required him to make a three-hour round-trip drive to see a physiotherapist in Athabasca three times a week.

Instead, Rob and the case manager at WCB put their heads together and came up with the idea of offering the help of Vanderwell’s on-site physiotherapist to instruct the worker on the proper use of equipment available at the local gym. The inventive solution came at the price of a gym membership, which the case manager happily approved.

The worker got exactly what he needed and was able to stay close to home.

“The result was that the worker got back to work, whole, and sooner, than he would have otherwise. That’s just one example of how we work together with WCB to do the best we can to help our employees when they get injured.”

Rob says case managers are also very accommodating when it comes to referring Vanderwell’s injured workers for medical assessments at Millard Health in Edmonton, which can expedite specialized medical tests such as MRIs or CT scans. There are ongoing challenges with the level of readily accessible medical services in his local area. It’s a common refrain for a lot of rural centres, but particularly in Slave Lake, which continues to experience a shortage of doctors since a wildfire devastated the town in May of 2011 and many of them relocated.


“Visits (by the claims teams) really help them visualize the workplace. They get to see the different environments that our people work in, to get a better understanding of what modified work might look like.”
Rob Irwin, health and safety coordinator, Vanderwell Contractors


Getting to know you: Site visits strengthen relationships and build trust

Rob says the people at WCB recognize the limitations the company faces and do whatever they can to mitigate them. They also see the challenges firsthand; he regularly issues invitations to claims teams, who travel from Edmonton to catch up with Rob and meet with claimants.

“Visits (by the claims teams) are really important,” says Rob. “It helps them visualize the workplace. They get to see the different environments that our people work in, to get a better understanding of what modified work might look like.

“And it certainly helps from my end as well to build relationships, and build trust. We get to know each other. They see how I like to handle things, and the different programs we have in place here.

“We have a great partnership—and that partnership is something I will continue to nurture.”


A strong Alberta needs strong industries and a healthy workforce

Behind the working Albertans that keep our province moving forward are vibrant industries and innovative employers.

These employers are our partners. Our province and workers’ compensation system would not be the same without their active involvement. When the system works at its best, employers from all industries commit themselves to health and safety—they drive the safety culture within their workplaces and hold themselves to high standards because they believe their workers deserve their best.


162,981 registered employers


An integral part of a worker’s support team

When the unthinkable happens and a worker is injured on the job, our relationship with an employer kicks into action as we invite them to become a part of the support team in their worker’s recovery. Employers know their workplace and workforce best, and they understand the resources available to them. The have the ability to come up with creative modified work options and they invite us to their worksites to show our claims teams exactly how these options will be successful. If modified work is hard to come by, committed employers are there in person, to reconnect with their worker and to help develop customized plans that suit that worker’s unique circumstances. They are actively involved in case conference calls, supporting their workers and lending their voice to important discussions about their recovery. Success for an injured worker requires perseverance, and it requires dedication on the part of employers.


Employers arranged modified work in 79% of cases where the accident resulted in a disabling injury.


Together, we lessen the impact of workplace injury

Employers are vital to lessening the impact of workplace injury and illness in Alberta, and it starts with their investment in safety and having plans in place before injuries even occur.

Through solid health, safety and return-to-work plans, employers are able to decrease their workers’ time away from work, reduce additional hiring or training costs and reduce costs associated with claims. Being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to disability management gives employers the ability to focus on their worker and their recovery. With this in mind, many employers also partner with safety associations in their industries to solidify their commitment to accident prevention through learning, regular audits and certification.

The relationship between a worker trying to return to work after injury and their employer should be a true partnership. We’re proud to support employers to be the best partner they can be, not only to their workers, but to our workers’ compensation system.

Working together to reach resolution

The decisions we make are as important to our employers as they are to our workers.

Employers deserve to be heard and to understand each decision we make. Unfortunately, disagreements may still happen sometimes. When they do, we want to do everything we can do to resolve employers’ concerns.


Over 12,100 employers are committed to safety through the Partnerships in Injury Reduction program.

Approximately $66.4 million was earned by employers in 2018 for their strong safety performance.

Support for employers

If we are unable to resolve issues through discussions at the supervisor or manager level, employers have access to other resolution channels, including services that can offer additional support in the decision review process:

  • The Employer Appeals Consulting (EAC) service helps employers understand the facts, policies and legislation used to make a decision, with a focus on resolution. Provided by WCB, this service offers assistance with submitting a review request and will help employers understand the impact of the decision(s) in question on their account. The EAC service provides information that can help resolve the issue or advice on how the employer can present their position.

    On December 1, 2018, the Government of Alberta’s Fair Practices Office was established. The Fair Practices Office – Employer Appeals Advisor Branch is a new service that provides independent advice, assistance and advocacy services to eligible employers.

  • The Dispute Resolution and Decision Review Body (DRDRB) assists workers and employers who request a formal review of a decision. Resolution specialists review the decision, discuss the issues raised and identify if there is new information that should be considered. If the decision is incorrect, resolution specialists work with Customer Service or Employer Account Services to correct it.

  • The external Appeals Commission for Alberta workers’ compensation is available to workers and employers who disagree with a decision made by the DRDRB and would like to appeal it.

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Albertans working—a safe, healthy and strong Alberta.