Boom-time worker shortage raises safety concerns

EAP provider sees rise in workload-related stress

As human resources manager in a Calgary-based oilfield services company, Coleen Hutton is concerned about the impact that the province’s booming economy, along with the accompanying labour shortage, has on the pace of work — and what it might mean for employees’ health.

Hutton points to the young workers at her company pulling 14-hour shifts when it gets busy, partly because the work needs to be done, but also because the overtime pay they get after 12 hours is very appealing.

“One of the reasons people are working more overtime is because we just don’t have enough staff. Partly, it is because of the fact that the labour shortage is driving up salaries and pay rates, making it financially lucrative to put in a lot of overtime,” said Hutton.

“And to a large extent, companies are allowing workers to get away with it because they’re trying to get the work done.”

She’s worried about the impact this pace of work will have on accident rates, on stress and fatigue, and on workers’ potentially diminished judgment as they drive from wellsite to wellsite.

She knows it’s not just her organization, nor even just her sector, that’s seeing the health consequences of overwork. An HR friend working at a call centre said the firm is so short-staffed, “people will work until 7 or 8 at night and on weekends. She said they’re seeing an increase in stress and fatigue, and an increase in turnover. They also had two supervisors suffer minor strokes, and their doctors told them to lessen the level of stress at work.”

The friend at that call centre believes the short-staffed situation is not due so much to the inability to find people, but to “the company’s choice not to fill positions in order to save money,” said Hutton.

Whether by choice or by circumstance, it’s more and more common to hear of employers functioning with not enough people. And the strain is starting to show.

As executive director of the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre, a not-for-profit resource service mandated to raise workers’ awareness about their right to safe work, Kevin Flaherty often hears workers complain about being pressured to go back to work too soon after an injury. But lately, he’s also hearing stories of long hours, of inadequate supervision and of people not properly trained before they’re put on the job.

“If people are feeling like they have to push harder and work harder and longer hours because of the labour shortage, all the studies show that the longer the days, the more the likelihood of accidents and injuries,” said Flaherty.

“In some areas in particular in the province, they’re short of labour, so not only are people working longer hours but employers are bringing more new workers more frequently. So there’s less experience on the job, and there’s more pressure to get to work before proper training takes place.”

At the Calgary office of Family Services Employee Assistance Programs, managing director Hugh McGeary said he has no doubt that worker shortages are linked to the increased levels of stress that he’s seeing.

“At the construction companies that we have a contract with, their employees just can’t wait to get into counselling. They have to wait until the weather turns bad or they come in later and later in the evening,” said McGeary.

At engineering firms, consulting firms or other types of business service offices, “we see people commenting on longer hours, more expectations. A lot of places use a project-based model for how work is distributed. In the past, a project will have a beginning and an end. There will be down time. But now people are complaining that one project just rolls into the next one and there’s really no breathing space that there might have been before.”

McGeary points to an across-the-board rise of one or two per cent in EAP utilization rates a year, a considerable trend given that utilization rates typically hover around eight to 11 per cent.

Asked why he thinks the rising utilization rates are linked to shortage issues, he pointed to usage rates that have not risen in the government sector.

In his view, employers are aware of such health and wellness concerns. “One of the reasons (employers) are turning to EAP companies is to try to have better wellness strategies, to try to encourage employees to have better balance or have better strategies to restore their energy,” said McGeary. “We hear it from employers themselves saying they want to do a better job of keeping their existing workforce healthy because they don’t want to go through the expensive retraining.”

But counter to what Flaherty and McGeary observe, people working at industry associations that keep tabs on health and safety issues roundly deny noticing any reason for worry.

At the Edmonton office of the Alberta Construction Safety Association, manager Robin Kotyk said she hasn’t heard any safety concerns from members. “They’re looking for bodies and that’s it. I’m not hearing that people are working longer hours or anything like that.”

Dave Kaiser, president and CEO of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association, said employers in the sector are indeed scrambling to fill vacancies and working understaffed.

“There is definitely stress — big time. It’s natural when people are asked to do more than they should be required to do on a day-to-day basis. It ends up compounding the problem, because if you’re the person picking up the slack because there’s not enough help, and we’re in a very, very tight labour market, you start looking for other opportunities.”

But asked whether he anticipates that level of overwork to result in increased health and wellness problems, he pointed to the industry’s lost-time claim rates, which have fallen from 2.7 claims per 100 workers annually in 2003 to 2.29 in 2004. (Across the sectors in province, overall lost-time claim rates fell to 2.6 per 100 workers in 2004, a 10.3-per-cent decrease from 2003 and the lowest rate in 10 years.)

Kaiser said there has been success through the province’s certification of recognition program, under which employers can undergo health and safety audits. Employers that score 80 per cent or higher in an external audit are rewarded with discounts on their workers’ compensation board premiums.

“Yes, the labour shortage does have the potential to increase the health and safety (risks) in the workplace. I don’t think there’s a question about that. But programs like the ones being delivered through our hotel safety association, to some extent, are mitigating the problems. The reality is if we didn’t have a labour shortage, the improvements we’ve seen would have been greater.”

For Flaherty, though, lost-time claim rates don’t offer a good enough picture of the state of health and wellness in the workplace.

“The problem is the stats are so general it’s hard to have stats to reflect what’s going on in the workplace. The lost-time claim rates that are used to indicate the success or failure of a health and safety program don’t really reflect what’s going on.”

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