Workers Health & Safety Centre

Supporting collective worker participation

Supporting collective worker participation
A message from Wayne Samuelson, WHSC President

“… the worker as an individual and workers collectively in labour unions or otherwise have been denied effective participation in tackling these [health and safety] problems; thus the essential principles of openness and natural justice have not received adequate expression.”
—Report of the Royal Commission
on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, 1976

For Ontario workers and their representatives our journey to justice is not an easy one. Our progress however is only made possible when we combine education with action.

Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) founder and then-Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) president Clifford Pilkey understood this all too well.  Guided by his incredible vision and leadership the Ontario labour movement established a forerunner of WHSC more than 30 years ago. In so doing, they realized an important 1976 Royal Commission recommendation for worker “self-education” in matters related to their own health and safety. Of course, this Royal Commission, popularly known as the Ham Commission, also made recommendations for basic worker rights, including the worker right to participate through joint health and safety committees and worker representatives. A workers training centre would prove key to the advancement of these rights.

Today, all involved in WHSC are determined to remain true to our roots. We continue to develop dynamic,  participant-centred occupational health and safety training delivered by fellow workers and focused on the rights and responsibilities of all workplace parties, plus specific hazards and how best to control them. Thus equipped workers and their representatives can fully engage in efforts to improve working environments.

Unfortunately, there are others just as dedicated to discouraging worker participation – and especially collective worker participation. I count some from Ontario’s health and safety Prevention Office among them (but more on this later). For similar reasons they have opposed what we as a society can do through government regulation and enforcement. The names for these schemes have changed with the seasons, but their underlying agenda has not; each tries to lower health and safety standards and push employer responsibilities onto individual workers.

Years ago this approach was promoted by cartoons of goofy or hapless workers sustaining self-inflicted injuries. The thinking behind them perhaps originated with highly questionable research conducted by Herbert W. Heinrich, an insurance investigator in the 1930s and 1940s. Heinrich assessed incident reports completed solely by company supervisors and concluded 88 per cent of industrial accidents are primarily caused by “unsafe acts.”

Throughout the 1990s and beyond, several organizations produced information for young workers that suggested their supposed reckless behaviour was the cause of their injuries. Fortunately in 2005, the Ontario-based Institute for Work & Health (IWH) began publishing research on what we already knew to be true: new workers, regardless of age, are at greatest risk for injuries. Their inexperience and a lack of employer-provided training in the face of workplace hazards are at the root of the problem. WHSC promoted this research to all who would listen. Eventually, this persistence would pay off. Officially, the province’s health and safety system is now focused by in large on new workers instead of young workers. Although, this year’s Ministry of Labour “It’s your job” film contest for high school students sadly celebrated videos that depict dead and injured young workers as the cause of their own demise.

Similarly, many have tried to blame workers for tragic falls. WHSC has resolutely refused to participate in these kinds of publicity campaigns, instead remaining focused on training people to avoid work at heights where possible and advocating high-quality mandatory working at heights training for workers.

And while some employers and training organizations have taken advantage of lax standards for Certification training and fought to create new loop-holes and exemptions, the WHSC has maintained our quality programs and advocated consistently for strengthened mandatory standards. We are not alone in our conviction that worker participation is well worth supporting. There is a vast body of literature confirming joint health and safety committees and worker representatives make a positive contribution when they have the resources to get the job done. Here too the IWH has weighed in. Recently they conducted a comprehensive literature review that concluded JHSCs and worker participation are associated with safer, healthier workplaces. They found no such evidence that programs advancing “safety culture” had any positive effect.

Just the same the MOL has declared the promotion of safety culture as a pillar for their official prevention strategy and worker participation is nowhere to be found in this document — so much for evidence-based decision making. 

To the uninformed, safety culture has a nice ring to it. But what does it really mean? Some companies who used to promote Behaviour Safety Programs are now calling their programs “risk management” and “safety culture.” It’s the same old idea that health and safety is achieved through non-reporting incentives, lots of safe work rules and discipline for workers who get injured. Meantime, hazards remain unaddressed and workers are expected to somehow work around them.

Naturally we at WHSC disagree with these programs. But when we disagree and stubbornly refuse to compromise on our commitment to real health and safety, others try to paint us as contrarians. So be it. With workers lives and well-being in the balance we will not go along to get along. Rather, we will continue the important work for which we were established all those years ago. To ensure meaningful participation, workers and their representatives need access to high-quality training and information they can trust. We cannot and will not fail them.