Entering 2013, Canadian employers and unions, public and private sector alike, must deal with increasingly complex issues in health and safety (H&S).
Workplace accidents, injuries and fatalities have a devastating impact on workers who are injured, as well as on co-workers, friends and families, and can significantly affect workplace productivity. Addressing H&S issues is made complex by the existing laws, agency priorities, and gaps in tools and training. As well, it is questionable whether the public sector “corporate culture” aids effective responses to the challenges of ensuring healthy, safe workplaces.
The effects of H&S on productivity are clearly seen by senior managers. For example, Kin Choi, Assistant Deputy Minister, Compliance Operations and Program Development, HRSDC-Labour, says there is a clear recognition that a healthy workplace contributes to organizational productivity, not only through a reduction in working time lost but also through the efforts of employees who are engaged in the creation of such a workplace.
These concerns are underlined by the broad costs of H&S from lost time because of accidents, injuries and disability compensation. These costs include many indirect costs and long-term liabilities. According to Art Deane, an Edmonton-based safety consultant affiliated with the University of Alberta, “factoring in direct and indirect costs, the total costs of occupational injuries to the Canadian economy can now be estimated [at] more than $19 billion annually.”
The cost picture worsens when mental health is included. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “mental health problems are the leading cause of both short- and long-term disabilities in Canada, with the…cost estimated to be $51 billion, including almost $20 billion from workplace losses.”
Related cost issues are high in the public mind. For example, a CBC news report filed June 20, 2012 refers to an internal Treasury Board report that “federal public servants are staying home an average of 18 working days a year, or almost a full month off the job.” CBC noted that these absences included an average of 12 days of sick leave and six days of long-term disability, costing Canadian taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in lost wages. Significantly, among those on long-term disability, “almost half were on leave for stress [or] depression.”
Such reports on sick leave are at the “margin” of hard core H&S losses, and a challenge to interpret. We cannot tell, for example, the degree to which sick and disability days reflect higher risk levels in the workplace or if they reflect, in part, the aging demographic of the federal public service. We do know that they represent huge costs and a major loss in productive capacity.
All employers in Canada are covered by H&S laws. While each jurisdiction has provisions reflective of their particular circumstances, all share objectives of ensuring a healthy and safe workplace, the prevention of accidents and injuries, and an enforcement regime to deal with practices that create or tolerate risks. Employers in the federal jurisdiction are covered by Part II of the Canada Labour Code.
All managers need to understand and respect the rights of their employees to be informed and trained about possible dangers in the workplace, to participate in H&S committees and to refuse dangerous work. Employees must adhere to H&S rules and report unsafe work practices. These rights and obligations are enforced by Labour Canada through a regime of workplace inspections, complaints investigations and reviews with administration by Labour Affairs officers across Canada.
A long tradition of research and practice in H&S demonstrates that worker rights, managers’ support for them, and enforcement reduce H&S losses. Research also demonstrates that those same efforts can lead to gains in productivity. Unfortunately, continuing losses indicate the need to do more to protect managers and workers from H&S losses. But workplace culture and priorities often hinder improvements. Changes are needed for managers to act effectively.
H&S laws in Canada originally focused on physical health and safety. Today, however, there is increasing concern with emerging issues such as workplace violence and mental health. A milestone in this area was the January 16, 2013 release of Voluntary National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety, which recognized the immense costs of mental illness to workplaces and society. This new voluntary standard provides a systematic approach to develop and sustain psychologically healthy and safe workplaces, including the identification of psychological hazards; the assessment and control of the risks associated with hazards that cannot be eliminated; the implementation of practices that support and promote psychological H&S; the growth of a culture that promotes psychological H&S; and the implementation of measurement and review systems to ensure sustainability.
Initial steps responding to mental health issues are seen in existing H&S steps aimed at the prevention of occupational violence, and related factors such as bullying. These responses to physical violence have opened doors for dealing with broader impacts on mental health of employees.
Many relevant guidelines and tools are already provided to managers. For example, federal level regulations require employers to: assess and evaluate risk and potential for workplace violence; develop policies to prevent bullying, teasing or abusive behaviour; provide training for all workers who are exposed to or who are at risk of workplace violence; put controls in place to prevent workplace violence; investigate acts of violence; and assess the effectiveness of policies and measures at least every three years.
Recognition of “bullying, teasing or abusive behaviour” as workplace hazards is seen as a key step toward ensuring healthy workplaces. These behaviours can have a direct negative impact on psychological health, and also can exacerbate the ill-health of employees who already feel stress from job insecurity or personal circumstances.
Given the tremendous costs associated with sick and disability leave, all managers should be motivated by the potential improvements in productivity that better workplace environments can offer.
Public service managers need to change the way H&S is managed. Actions should include design of ways to improve work environments, preventative actions to minimize risks, and stronger application of existing standards supporting worker rights and participation. Culture must also be redesigned to aid the reduction of risks, with workplace dialogue playing a key role. This need is recognized by senior managers. Kin Choi noted that, “we need to promote more conversation/dialogue about this. This needs to take place at all levels, among managers and between managers and their employees.”
Managers can be aided in their H&S work and in their accountability by improved top-down policies. There is a need to cascade accountability for H&S as well as rewards up and down “the chain of command.” Related steps should include incentives for performance in OHS.
• Strengthen accountability: Performance management agreements can be an important tool to assist. Performance pay, based on achievement of “key commitments,” could be used to reward executives who demonstrate efforts to engage in dialogue/conversations with their employees and who require their managers to also do so. New “key commitments” for managers should include an assurance that executives have regular meetings with members of H&S workplace committees and H&S policy committees.
• Need for broader actions: Our thinking and our actions in the field of H&S should be expanded to reflect the increased complexity of psychological health and safety. We have seen successes in reducing accidents and injuries; now we must learn to apply the same effort to mental health.
• Improve dialogue to change the workplace culture: Open dialogue on H&S topics has been difficult to achieve both because of limited resources, and the need for innovative forums for manager-employee engagement. Bill Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, suggests that managers can contribute to stress reduction by communicating openly with employees about such topics as performance expectations, workload management, priority setting, and, of course, budget reductions. This means a coherent strategy for employee engagement.
More dialogue is needed, and managers need better tools to deal with behaviours that can lead to violence. As well, psychological health and safety as a key workplace issue creates new challenges to be addressed, and ones for which management’s tools need improvement. The legal framework of health and safety and human rights laws is catching up to this new reality, providing a better framework for responses. However, compliance-enforcement efforts alone, while vitally important, will not be enough to deal with the challenges.
Managers must engage in greater dialogue with employees and each other. They should take advantage of the tools now available and seek to create a healthy, productive working environment. Managers should be accountable for their efforts and they should be rewarded as well. Additionally, H&S performance should be measured and included in annual reports for all agencies, on the premise that “what gets measured gets dealt with.” Accountability should also include rewards for employees to aid a seamless collaboration between managers and bargaining units.