Workers Health & Safety Centre

Safe and healthy work…insist on it!

Workers bow their heads during a Day of Mourning ceremony
A Day of Mourning message from Dave Killham,
WHSC Executive Director

Workers and their representatives have much to be proud of when it comes to occupational health and safety gains. But experience tells us workers need so much more to secure safer, healthier work. And what gains they have made, can be swiftly taken away. Persistence and vigilance then must remain at the heart of worker health and safety activism. This approach may not sound very exciting, but it works.

So as we approach our National Day of Mourning for workers injured, killed or made ill because of hazardous work let’s remember, but also reflect on what it takes to prevent such needless and unacceptable suffering.

Impressive gains

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of our province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (the Act). This year it will be 40 years since workers achieved hard-won health and safety regulations for industrial, construction and mining establishments. What would follow is equally impressive. Sustained funding for the Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) and Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), Designated Substance regulations, WHMIS regulations, regulations covering health care establishments, dramatically improved confined space regulations, changes to the Criminal Code, changes to the Act to include workplace violence and harassment policies and programs, a Toxics Reduction Act, a mandatory Certification training standard for joint health and safety committees and most recently another training standard for Working at Heights – all these milestones were achieved because workers and their representatives insisted on the resources and specific legislative protections workers need.
Today, among other objectives, activists are working to secure better protection against hazards that are causing an epidemic of occupational disease and musculoskeletal disorders, a health and safety regulation for the education sector and other long-promised training standards for priority hazards, entry-level training and worker reps in small workplaces. Unfortunately, though, as activists strive to improve the lot of workers, they have begun experiencing setbacks. Last month with the passage of Bill 66 we saw the repeal of the Toxics Reduction Act, a piece of legislation designed to help protect the health of the public, workers and ecosystems. With it workers also lost improvements to employment standards governing hours of work. Research tells us, non-standard hours of work can seriously affect workers’ health. We have also seen press releases announcing intentions to reduce Basic Certification training for certified health and safety representatives, to a one-day, on-line course. Most recently, a plan for employer self-education and self-regulation when it comes to employment standards has been announced.

Pressing forward

In the face of these setbacks, the worker activists I know will regroup, make the case to undo these changes and press forward, not only in the legislature but in their workplaces. After all, many of the protections set out in the Act were first negotiated in workplaces. Let’s remember too, the Act offers minimum protections; over the years many workplaces have gone far beyond the letter of the law. At WHSC we have certainly seen this approach when it comes to health and safety training.

WHSC has helped workplaces train the entire joint health and safety committee in Certification training, not just the two (one worker rep, one employer rep) required by law. A number of these same workplaces have contracted us to develop custom workplace-specific training for the committees and indeed their entire workforce. We trained workforces in workplace violence and harassment prevention long before these issues were covered under the Act. Comprehensive WHMIS training, training to help prevent musculoskeletal disorders, and worker operator training on a host of potentially hazardous equipment have all been delivered without the force of specific regulation. Although, just imagine what could be achieved for workers if proper training standards were in place for all these issues and more.

Value of training standards

One need look no further than a recent Ministry of Labour (MOL)-funded study to learn the value of mandatory training standards. The study conducted by Ontario’s Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found mandatory Working at Heights training, governed by a training standard, improved worker knowledge, confidence and safe work practices. Employers also reported improvements to the work site in the form of new equipment purchases, guardrail implementation, development of fall rescue plans and more frequent inspection of equipment. Most important, the training resulted in lower working at heights injury claims – 19.6 per cent lower to be precise. This without even a full year of data following the standard’s compliance deadline.
Next consider a MOL root cause analysis study into the deaths of 92 workers working at heights between 2009 and 2016. MOL staff found 13 contributing factors “based on common hazards and themes”. Their summary results revealed lack of work site instruction was the most common contributing factor – in 44 of 92 deaths from falls. An absence of fall arrest equipment was involved in 39 deaths. Lack of falls training was associated with another 29 deaths. Improper wearing of fall arrest equipment, improper guarding and harmful conditions were the next three highest contributing factors. I would argue all these factors can be tied to the lack of proper training. With quality training participants would understand the need for work site instruction, proper equipment and how to wear fall protection equipment.

Regardless, the facts from these studies speak for themselves. Quality, standardized training works. When proper training is absent, workers pay with their lives. Or to put it another way, quality training saves lives.

Evidence-based action

Clearly, we need more, not less, evidence-based action. If we did, the province would not be contemplating a one-day, online training standard for Basic Certification. Nor would we be confronted by the continuing problem of employer reprisals for workers attempting to exercise their rights. As we learned this week from another MOL-funded study, despite a few improvements to the complaints process some eight years ago, workers are still being fired illegally for exercising health and safety rights, rarely do they get their jobs back, and rarer still do employers suffer legal consequences.
And yet we know legal consequences also work. A systematic review lead by the IWH of studies from 1990 through 2013 determined regulatory health and safety inspections leading to fines or other penalties reduce work-related injuries. The review also found evidence that consultative activity as a means of enforcement has no effect on injuries. As Dr. Emile Tompa, IWH senior scientist and lead author of the review quite rightly observed at the time, “What this shows is employers do take steps to prevent work-related injuries for employees when there are direct consequences to them.”

Similarly, we know regulation is an important driver of chemical substitution.  A report commissioned by the European Chemicals Agency found the transition to safer workplace chemicals absolutely requires regulatory muscle. Further, they found supporting resources are equally important. So again imagine what could be achieved if instead of repealing the Toxics Reduction Act here in Ontario, we actually expanded it and supported it with a Toxics Use Reduction Institute as they have in Massachusetts. This was exactly one of the many important recommendations made by Occupational Cancer Research Centre in their groundbreaking report which thoroughly documented Ontario worker exposures to carcinogens, highlighted major policy gaps in our health and safety system and provided a workable blueprint for real occupational disease prevention in this province.

With evidence and blueprints in hand where do we go from here? Well as I have suggested, worker health and safety activists aren’t going anywhere. They will stay the course, taking action every day, insisting on safe and healthy work. I and all connected with the Workers Health & Safety Centre consider it a privilege to support their efforts – and indeed the efforts of everyone working to prevent worker injury, illness and death – with the kind of training and information services they need to get the job done. On Day of Mourning we will remember and reflect, and on every day thereafter, like worker activists, we will act for working people.

Day of Mourning 2019 Events

This weekend, communities across the province will observe April 28, our National Day of Mourning for workers injured, killed or made ill by hazardous exposures at work. Haven’t figured out which event you will attend? Check out the event listing posted on the WHSC dedicated Day of Mourning web page. When you head out to an event be sure to bring family, friends and co-workers with you. This is our day to raise awareness of the single most important issue workers confront at work.