New research helps dispel the myth of young worker carelessness
New workers, not young workers, are at greatest risk for occupational injuries.
So concluded a recent study published by researchers associated with the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) and University of Toronto and entitled, “Trial by Fire: a multivariate examination of the relation between job tenure and work injuries.”
Specifically, the study, published in the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found workers are four to six times more likely to be injured during the first month on a job than workers with more than one year experience on the job.
The authors first acknowledge, “For nearly a century, studies have consistently shown that newly hired workers are more likely to be injured than those with longer job tenures.”
A 2005 research report prepared for Great Britain’s Health & Safety Executive again confirmed this trend. Workers with one month or less experience were found to be at greatest risk.
“Trial by Fire,” as its subtitle suggests, examined the link between job tenure and work injuries as well, but they did so with an emphasis on age related differences. The authors go on to cite the over 10 per cent increase (from 31.1 per cent to 42.2 per cent between 1983 and 1994) of workers between the ages of 16 and 19 years old who are employed in temporary jobs and in developed countries as their reason for attempting to make this distinction.
They found however, “being new on the job is a risk factor regardless of age,” and “increased risk for new workers was more pronounced among older workers compared with their younger counterparts.”
They further concluded, “Indeed, it was striking how quickly the claim rates dropped as young workers gained experience on the job. This pattern is consistent with the notion that cognitive development factors (for example, perceived vulnerability) are not the predominant factor. If such development factors were a persistent and predominant factor, we would have expected to see their elevated risk continue even as they gained experience.”
This study should help put to rest the misperception young workers are at greatest risk for occupational injuries says Dave Killham, executive director, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC). Further, he hopes the study will prompt all organizations in Ontario’s health and safety system to re-examine their priorities. “For years now, many have focused considerable effort on addressing young worker health and safety. I think it time we ask, ‘Do we have the right focus?’ The issue is very appealing for many people. Admittedly, some of our own Workers Centre programs have dealt with it. As a society we all identify with the tragedy of losing or maiming a young person. But are we so preoccupied with young worker health and safety we have lost sight of the bigger picture? Likely so.”
Unfortunately, adds Killham, this preoccupation has often prevented many from looking at the root causes of workplace injury and death and has done little to address other priority issues such as occupational disease.
Wayne Samuelson, president, Ontario Federation of Labour, agrees. He also takes the view this concentration on a worker’s age plays into the hands of those employers who prefer to blame workers for incidents and avoid their responsibility of providing a safe and healthy workplace. “Young workers of my acquaintance are responsible people just trying to help pay for their education or contribute to the family’s income. In the context of health and safety though, when we separate ‘young workers’ from the rest of the workforce, we may very well emphasize existing prejudices. Few say it out loud these days, but many mistakenly think young workers who are fatally or critically injured are the authors of their own misfortune. They think these workers are just cocky kids who took unnecessary chances.”
“This mindset is certainly out there. We have to confront it head on,” says Nancy Hutchison, United Steelworkers (USW) District 6, health and safety coordinator. “I recall reading the Toronto Star report about the Lewis Wheelan tragedy. ‘I’ll never hire a 19-year-old again.’ This remark was attributed to Lewis’ employer, the CEO of Great Lakes Power; never mind Lewis never received any workplace health and safety training, he was working around poorly maintained electrical lines and the employer deliberately chose to leave the power on.
“I also remember reading a report that found it’s the more confident kids who are less likely to become injured,” says Hutchison.
Lewis Wheelan was working his second day on the job when an overhead power line swooped down upon him, sending 7,200 volts of electricity coursing through his arm, chest and legs. Lewis was badly burned and required extensive skin grafts. This former York University athlete also became a triple amputee, losing his right arm, shoulder, and both legs. Unfortunately the nightmare of his ravaged body was not the end of Lewis’ suffering. In a tragically sick twist of fate, Lewis, after a grueling two years of recuperation, died alone in his apartment during a massive power blackout in August 2003. His skin grafts had needed constant air conditioning to prevent his body from overheating. The lack of air, the lack of power, took his life.
The other report to which Hutchison refers was conducted by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) of British Columbia in December 2001. They found, “workers (between the ages of 15 and 24) with two or more accidents had somewhat lower levels of self-esteem and slightly lower levels of omnipotence.”
“Our union has been trying to fight back Behaviour Based Safety (BBS). If you stop to think about it ‘young worker health and safety,’ or focusing on age alone, could be seen as another form of BBS,” says Nancy Hutchison.
Hutchison is careful to explain herself. Each year, she says, the USW partners with the Workers Centre to deliver an important Day of Mourning message to high school students. “But we target youth in schools because it is a great way to reach a large segment of potential new workers. Our program and presenters aim to help dispel the myth of young worker carelessness. We tell them straight up workers, young and old, are dying in numbers too great to ignore. And yet workers have a legal right to a safe and healthy workplace, one that leaves their bodies and dignity intact.”
BBS programs originated in the United States but are now marketed worldwide. The term, Behaviour Based Safety
refers to a wide range of programs, which concentrate attention on workers’ behaviour as the cause of most work-related injuries and illnesses. These programs are now routinely used in a variety of industry sectors, from construction, and the automobile industry to food processing and steel. Based on the principles of behavioural psychology,
also known as behaviour modification,
BBS is a technique for modifying behaviour of workers to make them work safely.
The Workers Centre has developed several training and information resources dealing with BBS. “Instead of identifying workplace hazards and eliminating or reducing them,” says Dave Killham, “the emphasis of the BBS program is to ‘encourage’ workers to work more carefully around the hazards that should not be there in the first place. The hallmarks of BBS programs are incentives such as pizza nights, bingo games and free jackets that some employers use to ‘bribe’ workers to work safely or overlook hazardous working conditions.”
The “Trial by Fire” study suggests, “The present findings underscore the need for improved monitoring by employers and government regulators of the biochemical, physical, and psychosocial hazards to which new workers encounter.” Other recommended interventions included worker training and management systems to reduce job turnover rates.
These recommendations are consistent with another IWH study released early this year which found the risk to the health and well-being of young workers is substantially linked to the jobs they perform, specific job characteristics and a lack of training. The B.C. WCB study came to similar conclusions, linking hazardous work and work-pace pressure to occupational injuries among young workers.
Interestingly enough, the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) has recently widened their awareness and enforcement campaigns to focus on the risks faced by new
and young workers. Their publication entitled, Young and New Workers… Are Yours Ready?
reminds employers “a safe work environment and ensuring a safe start when new people come to work for you is not only the right thing to do, it’s the law.”
Wayne Samuelson observes those in the labour movement and at the Workers Health & Safety Centre have long understood the distinction between new and young workers. “Unlike some, we have focused our efforts on helping workers and workplace representatives to eliminate hazards and avoid band-aid solutions or victim blaming tactics. And like the Steelworker/Workers Centre program this approach was reflected in the Workers Centre’s original New Worker Awareness
program aimed at high school students.”
The Workers Centre and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) first partnered in 1988 to develop occupational health and safety awareness resources and presentations for students. This New Worker Awareness
program was delivered to thousands of high school students in assemblies and smaller classroom presentations each year.
Seeking to meet the growing demands to deliver this type of awareness initiative, the Workers Centre and OTF sought additional funding and support from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). As a result, a new Young Worker Awareness Program
(YWAP) was developed using the original WHSC/OTF program as a basis. (See page 6 for an update on this program, the USW/WHSC program and other Workers Centre initiatives aimed at students entering the workforce.)
As for the Workers Centre’s hazard-based approach, Dave Killham points out the organization’s training programs can be clustered into three streams – training to meet legislative imperatives aimed at eliminating hazards; skills training to help meet these imperatives; and training to identify, assess and control, or better yet, eliminate specific hazards at work. The Workers Centre’s newly revised program addressing the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System and new legal requirements for work in and around confined spaces are but two examples. Many of these programs, says Killham, are ideal training for new workers.
To help workplace representatives better measure hazards and training needs the Centre is also in the midst of developing a series of assessment tools. The first of these, called The Training Gap Analyzer
, is available from Workers Centre training service representatives in any one of their six locations or on their web site at www.whsc.on.ca
“It’s the workplace, not the worker – no matter their age. The sooner everyone gets on this page, the sooner we get on with the job of creating safer and healthier workplaces,” says Killham. “Meantime, it’s good to know the research validates what workers have known all along.”
For a complete list of Workers Centre training programs be sure to visit: www.whsc.on.ca/products/train_cat.cfm