Checking in to safety

MSDs, return to work concerns for hotel industry

Canine Cuts was a successful dog grooming, pet supply and boarding kennel business in Edmonton. The grooming business had a six-week wait list and customers would come from as far away as Fort McMurray, Alta., and Saskatchewan. 

During busy seasons, owner and operator Barbara Malacko would experience pain in her right wrist that worsened every year. 

“My forearm became very tight and my fingers would scream. I dropped my clippers and scissors on a regular basis as I was losing the strength in my grasp,” says Malacko.

After years of doing repetitious work, she had developed tendonitis. While that first sign of pain was in 1999, to this day, the dexterity and strength in her right hand have never recovered. 

That occupational injury spurred a career change. After 11 years of running Canine Cuts, Malacko closed up shop and completed the University of Alberta’s OH&S certificate program. She was then hired as a contractor on a major gas plant outside of Edmonton. In 2007 she joined the Alberta Hotel Safety Association (AHSA) as an administrative assistant and now she is the executive director.

“It’s funny how things fall into place. Now I’m in an industry where musculoskeletal disorders, all those repetitious injuries, are prominent and I have an understanding and I can stress that importance to (workers) that these are life altering,” she says. “It’s that connection with someone working in a hotel.”

The AHSA is a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to reduce injuries and claims by increasing awareness of health and safety within the industry. All hotels in the province pay for the association through a levy collected by the Workers’ Compensation Board of Alberta (WCB). 

One of the challenges Malacko faces in oil-and-gas-centric Alberta is that hotels are not viewed as a high-hazard industry, so people often ask how workers can get hurt in a hotel.

“My response to that is always ‘Well, let me tell you.’ Think about that housekeeper who has 20 to 30 minutes to clean a room. She is going at light speed and just think about all the things she’s doing over and over again in the day.”

For example, housekeepers are not only pushing and pulling when stripping a bed, they are stretching and reaching when cleaning bathrooms.

“It’s that strain and the pinches. It will be ‘My shoulder, my back, knees, hips’ — all their joints start to hurt after a period of time,” says Malacko.

When it comes to the front desk staff, ergonomics are always a concern, as well as the risks that come with dealing with the public.

“If we have guests checking in that become aggressive, those individuals need those skills on top of everything else to be able to control that environment,” she says.

The engineering and maintenance workers face hazards around boilers, HVAC systems and confined spaces.

Hotels also have kitchens, so all of the hazards associated with running a commercial kitchen come into play for AHSA as well. 

The association provides information and tools to assist hotels and motels with mitigating these risks. It offers training courses, tool kits for implementing health and safety programs, and various resources.

“We’ve had hotels who have successfully built programs submitting their templates to us — policies, procedures, hazard assessment — so we can turn around and post them on our website and say, ‘There you go hotels. This is made by hotels, this is for hotels, this relates to you,’” says Malacko.

Two years ago AHSA made its WHMIS training free to its members. Through reviewing audits, it discovered not all workers were receiving WHMIS training because the hotels were following the training schedule of the chemical suppliers.

AHSA offers the WHMIS training online, where participants can watch videos, read content and answer quizzes, or a facilitator kit is available. The kit includes PowerPoint slides, speaking notes, videos, quizzes and a marking guide for the teacher, as well as a student manual. Both methods provide a certificate of completion at the end.

“Within the first year our increase in participation went up 371 per cent. People just grabbed it. It was jaw dropping. We just went ‘Wow, this is what they need,’” says Malacko. “They’re so enthusiastic about having the resource at their fingertips and we just have continual sign-up.”


Engaging workers in the hotel industry with safety is a main priority of AHSA. This is particularly a challenge as there is a lot of turnover and younger workers coming in.

“It’s just keeping that momentum going. The easier we can make it for them by getting them engaged and say safety isn’t this horrid subject that’s boring and dry, it’s actually interesting, the better,” says Malacko.

To boost engagement around safety, Malacko launched the “Safety in a Minute” video series which consists of 10 fun and quirky videos, each one-minute in length, that cover a health and safety topic. The first round of 10 videos was so successful, with people using them in orientation and safety meetings, that the AHSA developed a second series.

“We needed to reach out and touch more people and we needed to come up with fun and creative ways to do this,” says Malacko. “The intent was to give you a laugh, because if I can entertain you a bit, you might retain this information as well.”

The association just recently launched a recognition program called “Everyday Hero.” Being that there is not typically someone hired in a hotel to be a health and safety manager — programs are usually run by a housekeeper, someone in the engineering department or human resources staff — the recognition program honours those who are making safety all inclusive.

“It’s recognition for anybody that does something special in a hotel, being I held a ladder, I ensured my co-workers were wearing their PPE or I am one of those passionate people that wants to share training and knowledge,” says Malacko. “It’s all those people who make that difference.”

Return to work

Another priority for AHSA is getting the word out there to hotels about the importance of return to work programs. While hotels will see savings in WCB premiums by getting someone back to work and avoiding lost-time claims, there is also the important human factor of return to work.

“We want that person to be productive, that person wants to be productive and have value in what they do day-to-day,” says Malacko. “We don’t want someone sitting there watching Days of Our Lives as they recover from a back strain.”

AHSA is currently focusing its communications to members on offering modified work. The industry maintains about 70 per cent to 75 per cent offerings of modified work, but Malacko would like to see it break the 80 per cent mark and continue to grow.

“There tends to be too much focus on the injury and not on the rest of the body parts that are still working,” she says. “It’s teaching hotels that with a bit of creativity, be it a buddy-up, be it modification of that job, we can get those workers back as quickly as possible.”

AHSA encourages its members to use its tools and other available resources, such as the occupational injury service provided by the WCB, to manage claim costs and injuries within their hotels.

“Nobody wants their workers hurt, but they’re not sure of all the tools they need to implement,” says Malacko. “What’s most rewarding and what keeps motivating us to keep doing this is they turn around and say ‘Thank you, I didn’t know, I had no idea this is what I needed to do.’”