Changing workforce calls for safety management rethink

A new employee is talking with the driver of a dump truck on a remote paving job. As he finishes his discussion, he steps down backward off the doorframe. His momentum carries him within a foot of single, open lane traffic. At that instant, the mirror of a greyhound bus passes inches over his hard hat…

A new employee stays late at the office for an open meeting. Only two people drop in. Shortly after their arrival, it becomes apparent they are both impaired and looking for trouble. What to do? Everyone has left, and calling for assistance might aggravate the situation…


Fortunately, both of these stories ended with nothing but a gasp and a sweaty brow. I know. I was the new employee. Do I work in a high-risk job? Not really. In fact, most people would associate caffeine overload or a swelling midsection as the primary occupational hazards of working as a union representative.

But in the course of my work, I regularly hear stories from members about near misses and tense moments arising from their employment. With members working in numerous industries—from tradesmen building the 2010 Winter Olympic venues to those caring for the elderly in extended care homes to security guards covering a Canucks game at GM Place—the variety of those hazards and the resulting injuries can be a bit overwhelming.

However, even “safe” jobs have their danger points—dangers often magnified by youth or inexperience. More than a decade later, I’m certainly not out of danger, but my acquired experience would help me address both situations I faced as a new employee more effectively today.

Demographic changes are constricting the traditional labour force, causing businesses to look farther afield for employees. Increasingly, they are hiring workers who are younger or less experienced, are new to Canadian culture, come from other industries, or for whom English or French is not a primary language. Nearly three out of four workers also do not enjoy the protection and education that is more common in unionized workplaces.

Stalled progress
WorkSafe BC identifies the following seven activities as the most risky for young workers and the number of young worker claims per year for each category:

1.    Lifting objects: overexertion causing sprains, strains, tears—1,000 claims per year
2.    Working on elevated levels: sprains, strains, tears, and fractures—700 claims per year
3.    Working with knives: cuts and lacerations—500 claims per year
4.    Working with hot substances or objects: burns—400 claims per year
5.    Using mobile equipment or motor vehicles: sprains, strains, tears, and fractures—250 claims per year
6.    Working with food slicers: cuts and lacerations—150 claims per year
7.    Working in proximity to running equipment or machinery: cuts, lacerations, and fractures—125 claims per year

Stalled progress
Despite making steady progress on decreasing the injury rate for new workers from 1995 to 2002, progress has completely stalled since then. In response to this trend, and in response to pressure from labour groups, the B.C. government has enacted a package of changes to its health and safety regulations in an attempt to further reduce the injuries to new workers and those working in isolation.

Requirements to orientate and train young and new workers have been strengthened and clarified. According to B.C. Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, employers must:

•    Assess the areas of risk and deliver appropriate preventative training, including the right to refuse unsafe work and the responsibility to report unsafe conditions and point out the identified hazards and existing workplace safety rules (Sec. 3.23)
•    Deliver supplemental or additional training if requested by the young worker (Sec. 3.24)
•    Document the delivery of training in a manner acceptable to the Board (Sec. 3.25)

Working late and in isolation
More recently, the government enacted changes in February to address hazards faced by employees working late at night or in isolation, including a requirement for customers to prepay for gasoline. The death of a young gas bar attendant, who was dragged several kilometres after attempting to stop a driver from leaving the station without paying, precipitated these changes.

These specific measures dictate that an employer must:

•    Indentify the hazards arising from isolated work and eliminate those hazards if possible; if this is not possible, employers must minimize the risk through engineering or administrative controls (Sec. 4.20.2)
•    Develop procedures for call-in or reporting to confirm the safety of isolated workers (Sec. 4.21)
•    Schedule two or more employees for late night retail shifts, or ensure that physical barriers are in place to prevent physical contact or access to employees by the public (Sec. 4.22.1)
•    Ensure that all fuel purchases are prepay (Sec. 4.22.2)

A changing workforce presents new challenges and safety risks requiring government and industry to be vigilant and attentive to these changes. However, as my personal experiences and the daily experiences of our members demonstrate, it will take more than the enactment of regulations to further reduce the injury rate among workers, especially young and new workers. These measures are only a step toward the actual solution.

Ultimately, success lies in the adoption of safer work practices and the fostering of a workplace culture that takes safety and prevention as seriously as market share and profit.

Kevin Jeske is a B.C. representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada, an independent Canadian union representing over 47,000 members.