OIL WORkERS AND SEAT-BELT WEARING BEHAVIOUR THE NORTHERN ALBERTA

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					Safety behaviour and driving




ORIGINAL ARTICLE
OIL WORkERS AND SEAT-BELT
WEARING BEHAVIOUR:
THE NORTHERN ALBERTA CONTEXT
J. Peter Rothe


Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, Centre for Health Promotions, 
School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Received 9 August 2007; Accepted 22 February 2008




ABSTRACT

Objectives. Seat-belt wearing rates in the North reflect workers in the oil industry, neces-
sitating sociocultural descriptions on the issue. The objective of this study was to describe 
how the social context influences oil workers’ views of risk and seat-belt wearing behaviour
in northern Alberta. 
Study Design. The study design was qualitative research. Focus groups were held with oil 
workers in three northern Alberta locations. 
Methods. Forty-five oil industry workers participated in 3 focus groups held in a different
northern  Alberta  location,  each  consisting  of  15  participants.  Focus  group  discourse  was 
centred on a series of questions that were clustered around the following themes: (1) propen-
sity to take risks; (2) work patterns and workplace routines; (3) driving history and patterns; 
(4) self-disclosed seat-belt wearing behaviour; and (5) social relationships.
Results. Northern oil workers believe that taking safety risks is an essential characteristic of 
who they are and where they work. Employers demand consecutive number of hours on the job 
and offer attractive incentives for working overtime that encourages risk-taking. Risk-taking 
also appears in driving where workers take numerous risks to get home after they have worked 
12-hour shifts for 14 consecutive days. Most are situational seat-belt wearers, buckling up in 
inclement weather, at the presence of numerous logging trucks and the threat of drunk and/or 
fatigued  drivers.  Without  prompting,  northern  oil  workers  consider  fatigued  driving  as  the 
most dangerous driving risk they experience in the north. Nearly every respondent has experi-
enced fatigued driving after completing his last work shift in a 14-day rotation. 
Conclusions.  Seat-belt  wearing  initiatives  for  oil  workers  during  off-work  driving  should 
be  led  by  the  oil  industries.  For  example,  they  could  support  and  encourage  the  police  to 
increase their enforcement, lobby the government for higher penalties, punish their workers 



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who are caught not wearing seat belts and collaborate with local communities to develop programs 
that will increase awareness of seat-belt wearing. Because workers described fatigued driving as the 
key risk in the North, oil industries should become engaged in interventions, with seat-belt wearing 
as a vital component of fatigued driving. (Int J Circumpolar Health 2008; 67(2-3):226-234)

Keywords: oil workers, road safety, risk, seat-belt wearing




INTRODUCTION                                                Such findings and lack of published
                                                        research  literature  on  the  topic  provided  the 
A  2004  Alberta-wide  rural  seatbelt  survey          incentive for the Alberta Occupant Restraint 
undertaken by the Alberta Occupant Restraint            Program to question why there are signifi-
Program  (AORP)  reported  that  the  average           cantly  lower  seat-belt  wearing  rates  for  oil 
seat-belt  wearing  rate  in  Alberta  was  87.9%       workers  in  northern  Alberta.  A  number  of 
for  drivers  and  83.9%  for  passengers.  The         interrelated hypotheses were tabled. One, the 
Northern  Lights  Regional  Health  Authority           natural  resource  industries  seek  employees 
#9,  representing  the  most  northern  area  in        whose  key  characteristics  are  independence 
the  province,  reported  the  lowest-seat  belt        and risk-taking. This hypothesis corresponds 
wearing rate of all the Alberta health regions          to the seat-belt survey finding that drivers
that participated in the province-wide  survey          who do not wear seat belts have a propensity 
(1). It registered 78.3% for drivers and 72.5%          to  engage  in  other  risky  driving  behaviours 
for  passengers  –  a  difference  of  about  10%       (3). Two, the northern region supports a large 
below  the  provincial  average.  Furthermore,          influx of transient workers who do not abide
the  wearing  rate  for  pickup  truck  drivers  in     by the traditional driving norms of the region. 
the area was only 69.7%.                                Three,  young  males  who  work  in  the  North 
   An occupational health report on the Cana-           earn large salaries, purchase powerful pickup 
dian  Upstream  Petroleum  Industry  fatalities         trucks  and  engage  in  a  machismo  way  of 
from 1995 to 2005 (2) reported that, according          life,  a  hypothesis  synonymous  with  seat-belt 
to Canadian Workers’ Compensation Boards                wearing research that identifies thrill-seeking,
data, there were 374 worker fatalities between          aggressive driving, problematic life-style and 
1 January  1995 and 31 December  2005 for               competitiveness  as  correlations  to  seat-belt 
the  Western  Canadian  oil  producing  prov-           wearing  (4).  Finally,  there  is  the  hypothesis 
inces. Alberta is the main oil producer and has         that the North has inadequate policing, which 
76% of the recorded fatalities. Motor vehicle           allows oil workers to set their own standards 
crashes accounted for over 50% of the worker            of  safe  driving.  Again,  this  popular  hypoth-
fatalities. The majority of these happened in           esis is congruent with the research that states 
the northern parts of the province called the           that a large proportion of the crashes involved 
oil patch.                                              drivers who had one or more previous traffic



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offences and that the lack of police enforce-                understandings  and  tendencies,  self-identi-
ment contributes to traffic offences, which                  ties, patterns of reasoning and influence of
in  turn  leads  to  increased  crashes  (5,6).              sociocultural  milieus  on  behaviour  (8).  The 
Although all of the hypotheses have a ring of                target audience for this study was Upstream 
possibility, more sociocultural information is               Petroleum  Industry  workers  in  northern 
required to establish their salience.                        Alberta.
   The research team began with the assump-                      Three  focus  groups  were  conducted  for 
tion that seat-belt wearing is part of a larger              this study, which included rig hands, produc-
social  environment.  Workers  make  sense  of               tion facility workers, engineers, services, hot-
or  assign  meaning  to  their  actions  through             shot drivers and field office personnel. Each
such sociocultural tenets as acquired driving                group  consisted  of  15  respondents,  whose 
habits  and  routines  (e.g.,  extreme  speeding             mean age was 30 years, with an age range of 
as  normative driving behaviour  on northern                 22 to 35 years.
highways),  workplace  realities  (e.g.,  corpo-                 Recruiting  oil  workers  for  focus  groups 
rate culture and work schedules), family and                 was difficult because oil workers live a
friendship  circles  (e.g.,  the  social  and  phys-         transient  existence  and  have  little  free  time 
ical distance between significant others and                 because  of  their  work  shifts,  which  can  be 
the job site), roles and patterns of behaviour               18  hours  a  day  for  14  consecutive  days  or 
(e.g., taking routine risks in life), and behav-             more.  Hence,  the  research  team  prevailed 
iour becoming personal self-image (e.g., self-               upon industry occupational health officers
image of being an oil worker whose accepted                  and  management  and  the  health  region’s 
vehicle is a pickup truck) (7).                              injury  prevention  coordinator  to  nominate 
   The  research  team  used  a  social  behav-              focus group participants and encourage them 
ioural  lens  to  construct  the  objective  of  the         to become involved at 3 different sites in the 
study, namely, to determine features that influ-             northern  region.  Participants  each  received 
ence seat-belt wearing behaviour amongst oil                 a  $50  honorarium    for  participating,  and  a 
workers  in  Alberta’s  most  northern  health               generous mix of food and refreshments were 
region.                                                      served at the events. The focus groups were 
                                                             designed  to  be  as  informal  as  possible  and 
                                                             to develop a rapport that would translate into 
MATERIAL AND METHODS                                         members being emboldened to share personal 
                                                             accounts and life experiences without stigma 
The  method  of  study  was  focus  groups,  set             or hesitation. 
up as carefully planned discussions with oil                     Focus  group  protocols  started  with  the 
workers to obtain perceptions, meanings and                  facilitators  informing  the  participants  about 
descriptions of their driving behaviours  in a               the  purpose  and  structure  of  the  study,  the 
permissive, non-threatening, nurturing envi-                 voluntary nature of participation and confi-
ronment.  The  emphasis  was  on  verbal  text               dentiality  of  discussions  and  the  need  for 
and observations that described participants’                informed  consent.  The  introduction  was 
perceived  roles  and  functions,  everyday                  followed  by  a  set  of  primary  questions  and 


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follow-up  probes  designed  to  get  others  in  a          I just wake up and go to work, come home,
group to confirm, disagree or expand on key              wake up and go to work the next day. I sit there,
points  of  discussion.  Five  principal  clusters       play on the computer, watch TV or read.
of 6 questions per cluster were developed and                I get up, get on the bus like a prisoner, go to
reviewed by local traffic safety professionals.          work, work for a day, get on the prison bus, and
They  were  (1)  propensity  to  take  risks;  (2)       come back to town.
work  patterns  and  workplace  routines;  (3)               A  typical  work  week  is  like  a  serialized 
driving  patterns;  (4)  self-disclosed  seat-belt       existence whereby oilpatch workers wake up, 
wearing  behaviour;  and  (5)  social  relation-         go to work, spend an hour or two with family, 
ships. The data from the two-hour focus group            if  they  are  married,  or  participate  in  some 
sessions were audio-taped, transcribed, coded            kind of recreation like watching television or 
and  analysed  through  the  process  of  “induc-        playing on the computer, go to sleep and repeat 
tion”  to  locate  patterns,  themes  and  rules  of     the same activities the next day. These typical 
action  and  reasoning  embedded  in  the  data.         heavy  workdays  run  consecutively  for  about 
The interpretations were reviewed/verified by            two weeks or longer. Despite the tedium, not 
a sample of willing focus group participants.            one worker expressed that he longed to find
The  Health  Research  Ethics  Board  at  the            different work, seek a more rewarding career 
University  of  Alberta,  Edmonton,  Alberta,            or change his life-style. 
approved the study design.                                   Escape  comes  on  days  off,  when  oil 
                                                         workers typically get in their trucks and drive 
                                                         to  Edmonton,  a  major  city  around  500  kilo-
RESULTS                                                  meters south. For example:
                                                             Like I’ve been going back home at least
The  central  question  in  the  study  was,    What     once a month in the last 3 months. Or go to
are key social context indicators that influence         Edmonton for a weekend or something.
oil  workers’  seat-belt  wearing  behaviour  in             Usually, every long weekend we head out
northern Alberta? Due to the flexibility of the          to Edmonton for 4 days. We leave usually
interview process, certain traffic themes domi-          Thursday night and we come back on the
nated the focus group discussions and helped to          Monday.
define seat-belt wearing behaviour (9).                      I go every chance I get to get out of
                                                         town…
Typical living                                               Once they reach Edmonton they like to
Workers in the oil patch tended to define                party, get drunk in bars, enjoy high-risk
their  life  as  an  amalgam  of  work,  driving  to     sports like dirt bike racing or ride their All
and from work and preparing for work. This               Terrain Vehicles and motorcycles. As 2 oil
life-style was pervasive in the interview data.          workers discussed:
Some  participants  evaluated  it  as  routine,              I like to snowboard, go dirt biking! I got
dreary, boring and unexciting. For example:              no wife or family or nothing to lose, so I’m all
   I work 7 days a week, and 12 hours a day,             out there for the adrenalin. If I can’t catch an
and stay home in the evenings. That’s about it.          adrenalin rush, there ain’t no point in doing it.


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   …Where do you socialize? Are you going to                  that, but when you’re out in the bush and you
join the equestrian club? No, you’re going to                 need to get shit done, safety kind of flies out
go to the bar in the city and….                               the door.
   Although  the  long  trips  to  the  city  occur              Discussions  on  risk-taking  on  the  job 
routinely about every 2 weeks or so, oil workers              often  invoked  comments  about  the  dangers 
are not inclined to wear their seat belts. Several            of  driving  in  the  North.  For  example,  some 
sample responses illustrate this theme:                       participants  thought  that  extreme  weather, 
   Nobody’s around, so you don’t wear them                    poorly  constructed  roads,  the  probability  of 
when you take off.                                            meeting  drunk  or  fatigued  drivers  and  the 
   I don’t always wear my seatbelt that often                 ongoing  presence  of  large  industrial  trucks 
when I’m on a trip, especially on the gravel                  created  risky  driving  conditions;  while  for 
roads I drive because they choke you out.                     others, the risk lay with oil workers who need 
They damn near choke you out.                                 to get home as fast as possible. As one worker 
                                                              discussed: 
Risk-taking                                                      I’d say yes I’m a risk taker ’cause I like
The general rule amongst oil workers is that                  driving from Edmonton or driving from
there are risks inherent in the nature of the job             Rainbow Lake to Edmonton. I made it in 7
and industry that are worth taking because of                 hours and 5 minutes once. It’s about 9 hours.
the  “big  money”  that  workers  receive.  There 
was agreement that the work tasks, although                   Driving differently: To/from work, at work
formally  evaluated  as  safe  by  occupational               For  oilpatch  workers,  the  drive  from  the 
health policies, are indeed dangerous but that                worksite  to  home  is  qualitatively  different 
the  high  pay  compensates  for  it.  The  theme             from  the  drive  to  work.  Once  workers  leave 
is  well  illustrated  by  the  following  sample             the  work  site,  they  are  so  eager  to  get  home 
comments:                                                     they  routinely  take  driving  risks  and  exceed 
    It’s a dangerous job, like it’s more dangerous            the speed limit. But, they are not as eager to 
than most that’s why it pays the way it does,                 get to work. They are usually responsible for 
that’s why the guys are there, for the bucks.                 being at a worksite at a defined time, when
They don’t give a shit about what they do.                    for example, they rotate with an oil rig crew, 
    You are taking a risk but you don’t                       working in isolation, preparing to travel to the 
really think nothing of it. It’s part of your                 city.  Failure  to  be  punctual  can  create  hard 
paycheque…                                                    feelings  by  workers  preparing  to  leave.  The 
    Taking  risks  is  an  accepted  fact  in  the            descriptions are reflected in the following
North.  It  often  happens  when  rig  workers                accounts: 
voluntarily try to take shortcuts or save time.                  You’re not in any hurry to get there but
At  other  times  a  foreman  may  demand  it,                you’re shaving hours off your time when you
despite  the  safety  regulations.  Here  is  one             leave…You’re trying to shave hours off your
sample comment:                                               drive time. If you got a 12-hour drive and you
    When it comes to safety, it’s fine when                   drive it half again faster than you’re allowed,
you’re not on a deadline or something like                    you can get there in half the time.


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   I’ve never, ever got a speeding ticket going          visionary, respect for the law or creation of a 
to work, but I can tell you what, the first 5            safer traffic environment.
years I moved to this province, I got damn                   Some oilpatch workers, aged 30 to 35 years 
many getting home and some of them, I got                old,  reasoned  their  seat-belt  wearing  behav-
were 20 kilometers over.                                 iour in terms of fate. Some suggested that they 
   …You’re going to get the gears from the               had  never  worn  seat  belts  and  that  they  had 
guys if you don’t show up on time…                       never  been  injured.  Their  reasoning  closely 
                                                         reflects a kind of determinism, the belief that 
Wearing seat belts                                       events  are  determined  by  previously  consis-
When  asked  about  their  seat-belt  wearing            tent  behaviour  (10).  Because  nothing  serious 
behaviour,  the  answers  were  an  uncompro-            has  happened  to  date,  no  misfortune  will 
mising  yes,  oil  workers  wear  them,  but  not        likely happen in the future. For example:
all  of  the  time.  Oil  workers  are  more  likely         A lot of the older people do it and they think
to wear seat belts if they become involved in            well, “I’m 50 years old, damn it, what are you
hazardous  driving  situations  like  extremely          doing telling me to wear my seatbelt and I
poor  road  and  winter  weather  conditions  and        made it this far? If it was going to happen, it
if they encounter traffic consisting primarily           would have happened by now.”
of semi-trailer trucks that hug the centre lane.             Oil workers aged 30 or younger often spoke 
Further  emphasis  was  placed  on  driving  in          in terms of personal control, immortality and 
the  evening.  Participants  were  more  inclined        their natural affinity to take risks. They do not
to  wear  their  seat  belts  because  they  feared      wear their seat belts because of their sense of 
that  other  drivers  were  fatigued.  Witness  the      machismo or, as some participants described 
following examples:                                      it, “macho bravado.” Some considered them-
    Well, the logging trucks are a big issue here.       selves to be too lazy or stupid, or they couldn’t 
They stick to the centre of the road. It’s easier        be  bothered  because  they  were  on  “short
for us to get out of the way than one of them.           trips.”  But,  according  to  some  respondents, 
They’ve got a tendency to hug the centre of the          that view  changes after workers turn 30 years 
road as much as they can. So, if you’ve got              old, an age when they are more likely to start 
your seatbelt on it definitely could save your           looking after themselves. 
life…if you have to pull out in the ditch to save
yourself instead of hitting the front of a truck.        Fatigued driving
    Road conditions, heavy equipment, bigger             The focus of the research was on oil workers’ 
trucks…Inexperienced fatigued driver…That’s              life-style  features  and  seat-belt  wearing.  But 
when I wear a seat belt.                                 the  power  of  discourse  often  reoriented  the 
    Later in the day, when guys are falling              focus. Fatigued driving was repeatedly inter-
asleep driving. Otherwise not that often…                sected  with  seat-belt  wearing.  The  general 
    Buckling  up  appears  to  be  situational,          tenor  of  the  interviews  was  that  although 
immediate and utilitarian – a worker will wear           non-seat-belt  wearing  was  an  issue  with  oil 
a seat belt to protect his life in traffic-specific      workers, the “real” issue was fatigued driving, 
situations.  The  reasons  are  less  likely  to  be     a risk considered to be inherent or “systemic” 


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in the workplace where employees work 12                   companies push hard to complete projects on 
to 14 hours per day in order to fulfill corpo-             time  and  on  budget,  often  placing  pressure 
rate  expectations  and  personal  desire  for             on  personnel  to  cut  corners  when  it  comes 
overtime pay:                                              to safety. To help counteract this reality and 
   There’s a lot of overtime…, so you get a                maximize  safety,  northern  employers  have 
lot of them working 16, 18 hours sometimes,                increasingly implemented programs like Job 
which I guess is illegal, then driving home.               Hazard  Analysis  (11),  Occupational  Safety 
I think they’re exposed to a lot more of the               Incentives  Programs,  Culture  of  Safety 
longer shifts, and fall asleep at the wheel.               Designs and Annual Safety Seminars or Tail-
    Immediately after their last shift in a 2-             gate Safety Meetings where work crews meet 
week rotation, they drive hundreds of kilo-                once  a  week  before  work  to  discuss  safety 
meters south to the cities. Being overly tired,            issues  in  the  energy  sector.  Yet,  according 
they often end up driving on the wrong side                to  oil  industry  safety  personnel, employers 
of the highway, waking up in the nick of time              are struggling to manage safe driving on and 
to avoid a major crash or hitting the ditch.               off the job amongst their workers. In partic-
Witness the following:                                     ular, they are concerned about seat-belt use, 
   I fell asleep at the wheel going to Grande              fatigue and impaired driving (12,13). 
Prairie just over a year ago. I just woke up                   The main actors within this broad context 
on the rumble strips on the side of the road. I            are  transient  oil  workers,  whose  life-styles 
went towards the ditch instead of on-coming                consist  of  living  in  isolation,  working 
traffic.                                                   maximum  hours  and  on  their  days  off  and 
   I push myself a lot, especially travelling              driving  long  distances  when  they  are  overly 
back down south, to go and visit family and                tired. They appear to be men who are attracted 
friends, tired…and, I’ve almost hit the ditch              to  the  high-risk  jobs  in  the  North,  workers 
a couple of times.                                         who labour in excess of 12 or more hours per 
   I did it. I was really tired. I actually dozed          day,  for  14  consecutive  days  or  longer.  They 
off and I was driving. I met a semi, like I                typically  take  driving  risks  when  they  travel 
woke up and I got right back into my lane                  home and they are unlikely to wear their seat 
where I was supposed to be…                                belts on their trips south, except as compen-
                                                           sation for hazardous driving situations like a 
                                                           heavy  presence  of  logging  trucks  on  narrow 
DISCUSSION                                                 treacherous highways, poor visibility because 
                                                           of snowstorms and other drivers who may be 
The  researchers  learned,  through  shared                fatigued or drunk. 
discourse with the participating oil workers,                  Although  the  research  attended  to  seat-
that seat-belt wearing is a reflection of the              belt  wearing  amongst  oil  workers,  fatigued 
social  context.  Alberta’s  North  has  become            driving  dominated  as  a  highly  important 
an increasingly fast-paced workplace where                 issue.  With  no  solicitation,  oil  workers 
oil  and  other  natural  resource  extraction             suggested that fatigued driving is their most 



232     International Journal of Circumpolar Health 67:2-3 2008
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feared  driving  scenario  in  the  North.  Yet           that can best be addressed from the worker/
they  agreed  that,  although  they  work  long           community  perspective.  It  should  be  led  by 
hours  on  consecutive  days,  they  will  drive          the  oil  industries.  For  example,  they  could 
long  distances  immediately  after  a  shift  to         support and encourage the police to increase 
get  home,  often  in  extreme  winter  driving           their enforcement, lobby the government for 
conditions.  Although  the  drive  may  be                higher  penalties,  punish  their  workers  who 
dangerous, the workers are highly motivated               are caught not wearing seat belts and collab-
to get to their destinations for a break. This            orate  with  local  communities  to  develop 
view  is  consistent  with  those  in  other  occu-       programs  that  will  increase  awareness  of 
pations  like  professional  truck  drivers  who          seat-belt wearing. 
believe that fatigue affects the safety of their              Increased  seat-belt  wearing  may  also  be 
driving and that the major cause is extended              achieved through other traffic-safety strate-
work  hours  and  work-related  stress  (14)  or          gies. Because oil workers described fatigued 
large-scale  farmers  who  drive  home  during            driving as the number one risk in the North, 
harvest time after extended work hours in the             it  may  be  productive  to  introduce  seat-belt 
fields or who drive between field harvest and             wearing when interventions against fatigued 
market  (15).  Although  no  literature  exists           driving are considered at occupational health 
that correlates rates of fatigued driving with            meetings  or  special  corporate  events.  More 
seat-belt wearing rates, a constructive specu-            specific to fatigued driving, oil companies
lation  was  proposed.  Fatigue  may  already             could introduce safe rooms or sleep sites and 
be  evident  after  employees  had  worked  12            make  it  mandatory  for  workers  to  rest  for  a 
to  14  hour  shifts  over  14  consecutive  days         couple of hours before they leave the prem-
without  a  break.  They  step  into  their  vehi-        ises  after  a  shift  change.  Besides  providing 
cles  immediately  after  their  last  shift  in  the     compulsory  participation  in  fatigue-driving 
cycle already tired. They already have slower             education  opportunities,  oil  industry 
reaction times, decreased sense of vigilance,             employers  may  also  provide  incentives  that 
increased  tendency  for  risk-taking,  reduced           are generous enough to motivate oil workers 
memory  and  impaired  judgements  (16).                  to stay and rest for several hours before they 
Hence, they may be more prone to not wear                 begin  their  long-distance  driving.  Tackling 
seat belts, especially since they already tend            fatigued  driving  may  also  increase  seat-
to  wear  seat  belts  according  to  certain  situ-      belt  wearing.  Future  research  could  provide 
ational factors.                                          useful data on such a suggestion.

Conclusions                                               Acknowledgements
The  study  explored  the  notion  of  seat-belt          Special  acknowledgements  go  to  Joyce 
wearing and the social context of oil workers,            McBean  Salvador  for  her  initiation  of  the 
the  results  of  which  have  implications  for          study.  This  paper  was  developed  from  a 
future interventions. Seat-belt wearing for oil           project  grant  provided  by  the  Alberta  Occu-
workers does not appear to be a driving issue             pant Restraint Program (AORP).



                                                  International Journal of Circumpolar Health 67:2-3 2008   233
Safety behaviour and driving




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J. Peter Rothe
Associate Professor
Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research
Centre for Health Promotions
School of Public Health
University of Alberta
4075 RTF
8308 – 114 St.
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2V2
CANADA
Email: peter.rothe@ualberta.ca




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