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HR's responsibility for occupational health and safety

While health and safety is everyone’s responsibility, HR has a role to play

By Brian Kreissl

Health and safety truly is everyone’s business.

This is actually enshrined in Canadian occupational health and safety legislation under what’s known as the internal responsibility system.

The concept of internal responsibility recognizes the workplace parties themselves, including management, workers, health and safety committees and unions (if applicable) — not government inspectors, lawyers or consultants — are in the best position to help prevent workplace accidents and illnesses.

Because of the involvement of so many stakeholders, it’s pretty obvious health and safety isn’t exclusively the domain of HR. But HR does have an important role to play, along with the other workplace parties.

Legislation assumes an adversarial environment

The shared responsibility for health and safety makes perfect sense, but in some ways it can result in unforeseen consequences. For one thing, the legislation basically assumes an adversarial environment and a rigid classification of employees into “workers” and “managers” or “supervisors.”

For example, under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), health and safety committees — which must include management and worker representatives — are required to complete workplace inspections periodically. While management representatives are entitled to and should participate in workplace inspections, strangely enough, the legislation only requires worker representatives to be present.

Provisions like these almost seem to assume a “them versus us” mentality with respect to health and safety. It’s as if “management” is some monolithic, all-powerful group seeking to cut corners, downplay hazards and undermine the health and safety of workers. In most organizations, nothing could be further from the truth.

I have been thinking about this largely because of my experiences on Carswell's health and safety committee. The rigid distinction between management and workers seems a little odd in an environment like ours where both managers and their direct reports are professionals in their own right. It also doesn’t fit our culture or status as a top employer.

And speaking personally, even though I’m “management,” it’s not like I have any power to meaningfully impact many of the areas that relate to health and safety in the workplace. While I can make recommendations, I have little actual authority when it comes to issues that relate to our facilities, equipment or working conditions.

So even if your organization has a fairly egalitarian, collaborative work environment with highly engaged employees, the legislation almost seems to assume otherwise. This is understandable given how some employers operate even in this day and age, but in an enlightened organization it can pose a bit of a challenge. That’s where HR can help.

The role of human resources

HR has a role in bringing the parties together and facilitating meaningful dialogue, even acting as a mediator between management and workers where necessary. HR can also help by supporting and having membership in the health and safety committee, communicating to employees the organization’s commitment to occupational health and safety, and training managers and employees on safe work practices.

As I’ve mentioned before, human resources is a management function. Therefore, to a large extent, HR’s mandate with respect to occupational health and safety is to support line management and the organization as a whole by creating and overseeing policies, procedures and programs, dealing with regulatory compliance and reporting requirements, and advising, coaching and training line managers and employees.

But just because HR is part of an organization’s management team doesn’t mean there isn’t an important employee advocacy role there too. This is true especially where employees express concerns around health, safety and wellness, or where managers do try to cut corners, keep hazards under wraps or fail to report workplace accidents.

Health and safety matters can be extremely technical and complex in some environments, meaning that much of the responsibility for safety management must be delegated to occupational health and safety specialists, who may or may not fall under the umbrella of the HR department. Yet, even in such organizations, HR typically has a role to play in developing and enforcing policies, training, overseeing the functioning of the health and safety committee, communication and regulatory reporting.

There are also many areas where health and safety overlaps with core aspects of human resources management. These include workplace harassment and bullying, attendance management, disability management, workers’ compensation claims, return to work programs, job design, wellness initiatives and performance management.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com. 

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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