Alberta's new OHS awareness campaign

Campaign, borrowed from the Maritimes, shows that even mundane tools like a bucket have the potential to cause injury

This is the story of a bucket,” begins a narrator in a 30-second safety spot that shows a blue bucket sitting in a busy hospital hallway. The ad originally aired in 2008 in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and is now making an appearance in Alberta.

Buckets are “naturally docile,” explains the voice-over, but after sitting all day “screaming, as loud as a bucket could, for someone, anyone to notice him,” that was about to change. Seconds later, a young woman — overloaded with boxes — trips over the bucket and the ad fades out with her cries for help.

“The bucket is representative of those everyday objects that we lose respect for in the sense of their potential harm,” says Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta’s minister of employment and immigration.

Alberta recently launched TV, radio and print versions of the ads in which a bucket, nail and ladder are personified. The province was attracted to the campaign because it identifies the “mundane tools” that are most likely to cause harm, says Lukaszuk.

“Often we think of workplace injuries and we attribute that to power tools or some impressive mechanical piece of equipment but the fact of the matter is that, in Alberta, our large, heavy (equipment) industry has a lower rate of accidents,” he says.

The government hopes the ads, in conjunction with other ongoing safety campaigns in the workplace, will help it achieve its goal of reducing injury rates by 25 per cent within the next two years.

“Safety is not only something that occurs at work,” he says. “Safety is a lifestyle. Safety is a mindset that you have to develop and have with you all the time. Educating workers only at a place of work would not give us the efficacy, as opposed to educating the general public.”

The province’s lost-time claim rate — injuries serious enough to cause a worker to miss the next shift — have steadily declined over the past few years, from 2.35 days per 100 person-years worked in 2006 to 1.88 in 2008 (the last year for which data is available). Alberta’s target is 1.45 days by 2012.

It may be difficult to draw a line between the bucket, nail and ladder campaign and a reduction in workplace injuries but in Nova Scotia, the number of workplace fatalities has been cut by one-half since the implementation of an overall aggressive social marketing strategy in 2008.

Time-loss injuries have also fallen from 2.61 to 2.55 days in a province where workplace injuries continue to be “a huge problem,” says Steve MacDonald, manager of social marketing at the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia. Changing attitudes has been the biggest challenge, he says.

“We looked at several social change models,” says MacDonald, “and a common thread through many of them was the need for awareness to build up about an issue in the public before any behaviour change can take place.”

In fact, 61 per cent of workers in Canada believed workplace injuries were inevitable, found a 2005 Ipsos Reid poll. Yet almost 68 per cent felt there was enough attention being paid to workplace accidents and injuries.

“If the prevalence of a pessimistic or fatalistic attitude is that high, you can be quite sure you’re not going to be able to make much progress using other instruments to try to prevent occupational injuries,” says Cameron Mustard, president of the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health.

Workplace safety ad campaigns can be compared to ones focused on drinking and driving, he says.

“Before provincial governments began to speak directly to citizens about the consequences of drinking and driving, the attitudes around ‘It’s OK’ were quite high,” says Mustard. “But attitudes have changed over a 20-year period, not just because of social marketing, but it has helped.”

Campaigns based solely on mass media communication are less effective at reducing work-related injuries than strategies that integrate consultation services, inspection, enforcement, education and training alongside public advertising, found Mustard in his 2007 paper A Review of Evaluations of Social Marketing Campaigns in Occupational Injury, Disease or Disability Prevention.

“You need to get people’s attention but, for anything good to happen, you need to give them the tools to be able to get it done,” he says. “You need to give the action that’s relevant to them, that they can embrace, to move forward.”

The most effective campaigns focus on specific risks rather than general awareness and, to have long-term effects, they need sufficient resources to reach a large target audience for a sustained period of time, found Mustard.

“It’s at least a five-year investment to meaningfully shift public attitudes about the fatalistic attitude that these are inevitable,” he says. “We know from smoking and drinking and driving that it’s more like 15.”

Getting workers’ attention in an already crowded media marketplace takes savvy, creativity and insight. Nova Scotia has just introduced a new character in its safety arsenal, Rod Stickman — a figure based on the “stickman” seen on safety signs. Stickman guides employers and employees through humorous videos focused on five of the most common workplace safety issues.

“They’re quirky, a little bit irreverent, hopefully entertaining to watch but they contain a lot of useful, important information,” says MacDonald. “No one wants to get hurt at work. Everyone wants to come home safely but, by the same token, no one wants to be preached to.”

Alberta has experimented with a range of public ad strategies, from the softer-sell bucket ads to a more graphic and controversial “Bloody Lucky” campaign that focused on younger workers.

“The fact of the matter is there’s nothing pretty about accidents,” says Lukaszuk. “Accidents are graphic. The long-term consequences, even if they’re not graphic, they’re even uglier, so we’re being very realistic about what accidents really are and, at the same time, we’re trying to garner the viewer’s attention. “

Ads that appeal to workers’ fears are most effective when workers feel the threat is real, they are susceptible and they can do something about it, found a 2008 report on behalf of WorkSafeBC that looked at how young workers, particularly 18- to 24-year-old males, responded to social marketing campaigns.

Unfortunately, few social marketing campaigns have been evaluated with enough information to say whether they’re effective at reducing injuries or cost-effective in the long term, says Mustard.

In Nova Scotia, change is underway, says Macdonald. In 2006, 63 per cent of workers said if they saw something unsafe in the workplace, they would do something about it. Three years later, that proportion went to 69 per cent.

“We see those gradual changes in statistics over time, and we see that as encouraging,” he says.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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