Government gets social for OHS

Provincial government agencies are getting on the social media bandwagon in an effort to increase health and safety awareness among younger and more tech-savvy audiences. The success of these initial efforts is making labour ministries across Canada take notice.

"If you think about it, it really wasn't even that long ago that people weren't sure if the computer was here to stay."

Barrie Harrison, the spokesperson for Alberta Occupational Health & Safety, makes a pretty good point.

The different ways in which we use digital technology have multiplied exponentially over the last fifteen years — a fact that has become increasingly evident with the advent of new social media sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Gone are the days of dial-up internet and load times that feel like crowded waiting rooms. In their place is a new technological climate that puts an emphasis on digital communities, interactivity, and the speed with which we can share and obtain information. The times are clearly changing, and it's up to us to adapt.

If you're wondering what this means for the future of occupational health and safety here in Canada, look no further than the country's provincial labour bodies and their desire to interact with workers via these new forms of social media.

Manitoba's labour minister, Jennifer Howard, announced last week that the province is considering using Facebook as a means of getting safety information out to workers. Her comments came following a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers last month in Winnipeg, where the issue of reaching out to younger demographics through social media was raised.

Bruce Skeaff, a social media planner with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, feels it's a step in the right direction. "The ministers agreed that they want to use social media to aim health and safety messages at youth across the country in a coordinated way. Obviously it's an important topic from coast to coast to coast. We'll see what comes out of [it]."

Social networking through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are nothing new for Skeaff. Ontario's ministry moved quickly to capitalize on these new means of communication when it realized the potential of social media platforms to reach younger demographics and generate interest in health and safety issues. They're beginning to see the results pay off now.

"Our Twitter feed is just shy of two years old, and Facebook and YouTube just launched at the end of July [2010]," says Skeaff. "Their growth has been much more than we expected: Facebook is ticking upwards in terms of the number of fans at a rate of about 2% a week, week over week, with no let-up."

One of the big draws of using these new forms of media is their ability to work in conjunction with one another to deliver a dynamic and multi-faceted message that both engages and informs young workers, while also generating exposure for important programs and issues.

Skeaff notes that the ministry has had great success linking different types of media across each platform in order to create a comprehensive resource support system. "We cross-promote our Facebook page with our YouTube videos, where we have quite a number of health and safety videos, and now some employment standards videos, as well. Then we have our Twitter page, which we use as a headline news service. So we have a nice package of news on Twitter, information on Facebook, and education on YouTube."

"We look at those three social media channels as spokes that we use — like spokes on a bicycle wheel — to get out to where people are already talking, or looking for information, or already discussing subjects that we're involved in. The hub that we can bring them back to if they want really detailed information is our main ministry website, so we can always draw people back there for really specific information."

Ontario's Ministry of Labour is not alone in spearheading the health and safety social media movement. Skeaff points to WorkSafeBC as another provincial health and safety body that has effectively utilized new media platforms to reach a wider audience. A search on the provincial compensation board's website indicate it's currently using Twitter and YouTube for its social media activities.

Alberta's Harrison, meanwhile, says the province's Department of Employment and Immigration is working to develop social media practices that are effective both now and in the future. As with any new technology, that can take time.

"We've had a number of campaigns in the past where we've used social media to help reach young workers," he notes. "For us, it's been campaign-based to date. It's not to the point of day-to-day activities with occupational health and safety. I anticipate there may be a time when we could get into that more with the likes of Twitter."

The province already has a YouTube account, but has yet to utilize either Facebook or Twitter. Harrison feels that's a state of affairs that might soon change.

"I think we also want to make sure that we study it and do it right. We're not jumping into it with a blindfold on. We are aware that, certainly going forward, it has to be a huge part of how we communicate."

And while patience is a virtue, Harrison also understands the importance of making the most of the opportunity to reach out to young workers in an environment where they're comfortable.

"I think we'd be remiss if we didn't always look at better ways of reaching workers in this province. Clearly, we have a significant number of younger workers, particularly in the oil and gas sectors, as well as other sectors. We're certainly aware of some of these avenues that are available to us. We've been experimenting through our campaigns to see what works. We [are] looking at ways to try and reach them, and [trying to find] the best way."

In order for their efforts to pay off, however, Harrison insists that the province must leave the lines of communication open and start a dialogue with the workers they are trying to reach.

"We want to make sure that whatever we do is also interactive. We're strong believers of two-way communication. It's not just us pushing the message to them: we want to be able to hear back from them, too. We want to take a look at all the options before us to make sure we have our bases covered."

Speaking from experience, Skeaff feels that's one of the biggest benefits of a media platform like Facebook.

"We originally launched the Facebook page to provide a sort of a town square where people could come and share stories about their experiences in the workplace," he explains. "What we found out, though, was that the public was coming to us looking for help, and looking for answers to questions. Since that's what the public told us, that was what they wanted to do, we were quite happy to change our strategy and begin answering individual questions."

The other nice thing about acting as an information resource on a site like Facebook or Twitter is that it doesn't preclude you from promoting awareness more generally, or creating exposure and buzz for upcoming projects and campaigns.

"That's what we do on Facebook, as well as publishing articles of interest," says Skeaff. "We have been doing a 'Tip of the Day' for the last week or so as part of the launch of the new Employment Standards Awareness Campaign. We're now going to be doing a tip of the week regularly throughout the year, some of them health and safety-related, some of them employment standards related."

Utilizing new social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is also thriftier than your average provincial awareness campaign. As a pioneer of the Ontario ministry's foray into this new world of communications, Skeaff appreciates the way these sorts of resources help to sidestep some of the traditional budgetary obstacles new health and safety initiatives are often faced with.

"Because this is so new to ministries like ours, there hasn't traditionally been a budget item set aside for social media," he notes. "We have developed all of this in-house, and the only cost has been the salary time of the employees, which is definitely a bonus."

For the many organizations that have already hopped on to the social media bandwagon, the decision to get involved in these new forms of digital communication seems like common sense— especially when one considers the potential benefits of using social media to reach out to workers across the country against the low monetary risk involved in developing these sorts of programs.

The only questions that remains is, how soon can tomorrow come?