Why deaths, injuries still mar workplaces

The perception is that employers don't get anything back for investments in health and safety

Despite government education campaigns, front-line workers in the field of occupational health and safety continue to see crippling injuries and deaths, some occurring within days of starting a new job.

We have to embrace the concept that “all accidents are preventable,” says Frank Stilson, executive director of the London Occupational Safety and Health Information Service in Ontario. Why do so many injuries occur? There are a number of reasons, he explains.

Stilson says the global economy is exerting pressure on employers. “Companies are competing with Third World operations that pay pennies an hour and have no health and safety regulations. The perception is that employers don’t get anything back for investments in health and safety. With the pressure to cut costs, people are laid off and those who remain have to do more. Half the cases we see are repetitive stress injuries, with half of those from computer use and the balance from manufacturing and food processing.”

Small employers present a particular challenge. If there is anyone in charge of health and safety it is often an add-on to responsibilities for production or quality control. Without a clear line of accountability for health and safety in a smaller organization, there is no followup on deficiencies in safety equipment or encouragement of the recalcitrant employee to make use of protective devices or follow safe procedures. Stilson says the law requires employers to provide training on workplace hazards. But it doesn’t specify when. For students and temporary workers the training sometimes comes after the accident.

Regi David, an organizer with Toronto Organizing for Fair Employment Everywhere, a non-profit organization that protects employee rights, says recent immigrants miss out on health and safety programs.

“Many work through temporary agencies. They are called in at the last moment to different assignments in factories or warehouses. They get no training on safe work procedures. If they ask questions they are not called back. Those who manage to find regular jobs are uninformed about their health and safety entitlements. I have met injured workers who are told to take sick leave rather than report to the WCIB and risk an increase in the employer’s premiums. One worker was offered a $1,000 cash payment for a lost finger rather than report the injury. He was afraid of losing his job.”

There are parallels between young workers and immigrant workers. Both are among the highest risk for injury. They are unfamiliar with Canadian workplace protocols and may not recognize dangerous situations. They don’t have a history of wearing protective equipment or familiarity with safety devices. Workplace instructions and hazardous materials labels may be hard to understand. They don’t know if the required posting of information on health and safety are missing. They are eager to please in the hopes of gaining further work. Many immigrants have the added barrier of lacking fluency in English or French.

There are other less tangible barriers to health and safety. Workers’ compensation boards structure their charges to employers to reflect usage. Some offer rebates for lower claims levels. While this is designed to encourage accident prevention, it has the unintended consequence of leading some employers to minimize incidents and mask occurrences. Government cut-backs have reduced the number of health and safety inspectors available to educate employers and investigate incidents. The recent emphasis on return-to-work programs is seen by some workers as an attack on hard-won benefits for wage support following workplace injury or illness. Increasingly, however, both workers and employers have come to appreciate the value of prevention and return-to-work programs offer in terms of employee morale, reduced training costs and improved productivity.

“We need to share not only the tragedies but also the success stories in health and safety,” says Stilson. Workplaces that take time to train workers before they go on the job, and follow up to ensure safe procedures, can avoid the dramatic headlines that follow those that do not provide the proper equipment and train on its use. The costs of health and safety programs are miniscule compared to the impact of a workplace death or injury.

Governments have addressed workplace health and safety. Brenda Croucher, executive director of the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, sees a common thread across Canada in the prevention and treatment of occupational injury and disease, and in getting workers back to the workplace.

There is a range of imaginative public education campaigns highlighting areas of risk. Alberta has profiled inexperienced workers. Manitoba has tackled hand injuries. Newfoundland and Labrador has prevention strategies for isolated workers. Ontario has campaigns on the risks to young workers. Health and safety is now part of the high school curriculum on Ontario. And yet…

Susan Singh is principal of Sumack Consulting which provides business writing services. She can be reached at [email protected].

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