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Recently, Brieann Spencer has been seeing a closer relationship between human resources (HR) and occupational health and safety (OHS).
“The two areas, if they’re not merging, they’re certainly working far more closely than they ever did in the past,” said the healthy workplace lead at First West Credit Union in Langley, B.C.
“It’s the future of work: Breaking down silos of departments and bringing together cross-functional teams,” she said. “I would say take that mentality and apply it to your OHS, understand how each area of the business will play a role in your whole safety culture, and it will certainly serve you well.”
First West’s health and safety department used to fall under facilities, but was moved under HR about a year ago.
“There was such an overlap between the two areas, so there was a strong rationale,” said Spencer. “OHS still has a strong connection with facilities but, in particular with the big movement around psychological health and safety in the workplace, it just really made sense to work more closely with HR since the two go hand in hand.”
For the last 10 years, the credit union has sponsored a mental health conference in Vancouver and the conversations there have evolved tremendously, she said.
“At least half the attendees are health and safety professionals or union representatives who are also the health and safety representatives,” said Spencer. “They may be having some conversations about physical health and safety issues, but they’re talking more and more about the mental health implications of safety concerns, as well as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Prioritizing psychological health
Federally, Bill C-45, which became law in 2004, puts a legal duty on all people who direct others at work to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public.
And with the publication of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace in 2013, there’s an understanding that mental health is an element of worker safety.
Some provincial OHS regulations, including those in Ontario and Alberta, now state employers have a responsibility to proactively protect employees from mental injuries that could specifically occur because of psychological bullying, sexual harassment and workplace violence.
“Up to this point, respectful workplace policies typically fell under HR,” said Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer of workforce productivity at Morneau Shepell in Toronto, and president of Howatt HR Consulting. Now, with mental health defined as a safety issue, there’s a window of opportunity open for collaboration.
Bringing HR and OHS closer together can mean playing to each area’s particular strengths, he said. In terms of psychological safety, for example, an HR department may already have programs in place that can be enhanced and adapted.
And when it comes to OHS, “most groups will have a robust management and reporting system in place that can be adapted to facilitate a psychological health and safety management system,” said Howatt.
“If your organization hasn’t integrated OHS and HR functions, you might want to consider doing so.”
Having OHS and HR work more closely together means companies keep an eye out for areas of overlap, and work to find efficiencies, he said.
“For example, an organization might want to integrate mental health, respectful workplace and wellness initiatives under one function,” said Howatt. “It might be called something like ‘total health’ and would have one strategy with aligned goals, metrics and reporting.”
In addition to making the most of resources, “this kind of integration makes it easier to align and integrate total risk with total health,” he said.
Pairing or integrating the two areas can have other benefits, too, such as fostering a workplace safety culture in which employees and supervisors work together to ensure workplace safety, according to Tallar Chouljian, occupational health and safety specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Toronto.
“An organization can also establish administrative procedures to encourage employees to report unsafe conditions and unsafe practices to their supervisors without fear of being disciplined.”
At First West Credit Union, many elements of health and safety have a natural relationship with HR, said Spencer.
In addition to ergonomic assessments and accommodations, her area ensures employees have counselling and support through the employee family assistance provider around potentially challenging — or even dangerous — situations that could include branch robberies or active shooter scenarios.
“It’s the aftermath that really needs attention, and that’s where HR expertise can help,” she said.
The organization is also in the process of deploying automatic external defibrillator (AED) devices at its locations.
“It’s not just about putting the AED in the location, and telling people how to use it, it’s about removing the fear and the stigma,” said Spencer.
“The HR perspective can help take it to the next level and make sure we’ve enabled people to find the resources they need, and to feel confident in the situations they may be placed in.”
“We’re looking at that whole psychological health and safety aspect and what that means.”
With Canada’s marijuana laws about to change, there is both a safety responsibility and an opportunity to renew conversations in the workplace about addiction issues, she said.
“We have lots of individuals who might return to work from some sort of medical leave and they may be taking some type of medication, whether that’s medically prescribed marijuana or some type of antidepressant,” said Spencer.
“There are always going to be side effects, so HR’s influence might be to ask how we can better prepare people to have those conversations. How do we ensure managers ask what someone is able to do and what work will look like, rather than asking about limitations?”
At some organizations, there’s less of a collaboration and more of an expectation that HR will handle OHS, according to James Donato, consultant at Workforce Law Consulting in Toronto. But that’s not always a winning situation.
“In many cases, the HR professional is now required to also be the health and safety practitioner for the company,” said Donato, who trains HR professionals on OHS.
“Some HR professionals may not be equipped or prepared to deal with complex health and safety issues.”
“It comes with experience and education; in most HR programs, the health and safety component is a one-course elective, and that’s nowhere near enough training if you’re solely responsible for health and safety.”
Aside from potential safety hazards, a lack of training and knowledge can introduce legal risk as well.
“I would caution organizational leaders who expect an HR professional to handle all of their health and safety issues,” he said. “Don’t expect that person to know everything when it comes to this large field, or it could put the organization in a position of liability.”
“If an HR person has the luxury of having a health and safety co-ordinator who reports to them, then things go much more smoothly,” said Donato. “There’s a good check and balance there.”
It’s really important for the professional responsible for health and safety — whether it’s the HR professional or the OHS specialist — to be competent through education, training and experience, said Chouljian.
“But they should also know when to seek help from other specialists to ensure the health and safety of their other workers is maintained.”
Even with a dedicated health and safety specialist on board, there’s still a need for an HR professional to learn about the field, including occupational health and safety legislation, the company’s OHS policy and informing employees, she said.
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