Ontario grappling with ergonomics

Province teams labour, business together to reduce musculoskeletal injuries — B.C.’s rules could provide a blueprint, says labour

With its concentration of manufacturing jobs, Ontario has long been regarded as the engine that drives Canada’s industrial sector. But that concentration of labour also gives the province another claim to fame — a high rate of musculoskeletal injuries largely caused by overexertion and ergonomic problems.

In 2003 alone there were more than 40,000 musculoskeletal injuries to workers in Ontario, according to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. That accounts for more than 40 per cent of all lost-time injuries in the workplace, noted Ontario MPP Kevin Flynn, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Labour and chair of a new ergonomics advisory group.

The group, set up by the province in March, consists of representatives from business and labour. Its mandate is to come up with ways to tackle the problem and report back to the government with recommendations.

“We’re constantly trying strategies to reduce injuries in the workplace, to save injuries to the individual and reduce pain and suffering and the impact on families,” said Flynn. “When you’ve got figures like that staring you straight in the face, that more than 40 per cent took place as a result of overexertion, it’s something we’d be foolhardy not to take a look at.”

Union calls progress ‘embarrassing’

Cathy Walker, national health and safety director for the Canadian Auto Workers and a member of the ergonomics advisory group, said she’s cautiously optimistic that something will be done to tackle the problem in Ontario.

“Our basic hope is that we can reach a consensus on the need for ergonomics regulations,” she said. “Ontario is so far behind it’s a bit embarrassing.”

She said market forces alone aren’t enough to encourage employers to address ergonomics. A combination of “good business argument and some good laws” are what’s needed to get everyone on the same page.

She said unionized employees tend to be better protected, partly because employers know they can’t simply get rid of an injured worker, and that it makes good business sense to ensure the job is designed to reduce the chances of injury.

“But the majority of workers in Ontario have no union at all, and those employers can simply hire people and use them up, lay them off and hire somebody new,” she said. “So where’s the motivation for them? If somebody has a bad back, they just hope nobody at (workers’ compensation) notices and they just terminate the person and hire somebody with a new back. So we need legislation that will level the playing field.”

She said British Columbia, in particular, is a leader in Canada when it comes to ergonomics regulations and Ontario needs a similar comprehensive code. B.C.’s rules take into account the need for employers to work with employees to assess hazards. Employers are required to go out and actively survey staff, not just sit back and wait for a complaint, and assess all the risks, she said.

“And it’s not just things like bench heights and reach factors, but also things like pace of work and the amount of repetition,” she said.

Flynn said the government hasn’t ruled anything out, and though it won’t commit to introducing legislation to address ergonomics, he said the “tool of legislation is always on the table.”

The group’s last meeting is set for August, and a report is due in the government’s hands one month from the last meeting. In addition to Flynn and Walker, the panel’s members are:

•John Macnamara, president of the Business Council on Occupational Health and Safety;

•Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association;

•Maureen Shaw, president of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association;

•Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour; and

•Nancy Hutchinson, health and safety co-ordinator for the United Steelworkers of America.

What B.C. is doing

British Columbia’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations contain a section designed to eliminate, or at least minimize, the risk of musculoskeletal injuries to workers. Here are some of the regulations.

Risk identification: The employer must identify factors in the workplace that may expose workers to a risk of musculoskeletal injury (MSI).

Risk assessment: When factors that may expose workers to a risk of MSI have been identified, the employer must ensure the risk to workers is assessed.

Risk factors: The following factors must be considered, where applicable, in the identification and assessment of the risk of MSI:

•the physical demands of work activities including force required, repetition, duration, work postures and local contact stresses;

•aspects of the layout and condition of the workplace or workstation including working reaches, working heights, seating and floor surfaces;

•the characteristics of objects handled including size and shape, load condition and weight distribution and container, tool and equipment handles;

•the environmental conditions, including cold temperature; and

•work recovery cycles, task variability and work rate.

Education and training: The employer must ensure that a worker who may be exposed to a risk of MSI is educated in risk identification related to the work, including the recognition of early signs and symptoms of MSIs and their potential health effects.

The employer must ensure that a worker to be assigned to work which requires specific measures to control the risk of MSI is trained in the use of those measures, including, where applicable, work procedures, mechanical aids and personal protective equipment.

Consultation: The employer must consult with the joint committee or the worker health and safety representative, as applicable, with respect to the following MSI requirements:

•risk identification, assessment and control;

•the content and provision of worker education and training; and

•the evaluation of the compliance measures taken.

The employer must, when performing a risk assessment, consult with:

•workers with signs or symptoms of MSI; and

•a representative sample of the workers who are required to carry out the work being assessed.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!