Health and safety outlook 2014 - Feature article

Mental health, random alcohol testing among hot topics for OHS professionals in 2014

The job of the occupational health and safety professional is becoming more complex every year. From new standards to changing demographics, the position is ever evolving. 

Canadian Occupational Safety hosted a panel discussion in November with OHS experts from various backgrounds to find out what should be on every safety professional’s radar for 2014. 

Adding value 

OHS professionals need to be mindful of adding value to their organizations, says Elizabeth Mills, president and CEO of Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) in Mississauga, Ont. They should start by understanding the priorities of the senior leaders — such as growing the business, managing risk, boosting productivity and enhancing efficiency — and then they can create a business case to illustrate how a healthy and safe workplace supports that strategy.

“Using business tools to be able to do that will help health and safety professionals to better present what they have, which can be fantastic areas of opportunity, in a way that business leaders can understand,” says Dylan Short, director of educational services at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) and managing director of the Redlands Group in Mississauga, Ont. “It’s no different than if you have a finance plan or a sales plan.”

Short recommends conducting a return on investment (ROI) analysis or a SWOT analysis, which assesses the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Having the health and safety department or official integrated within the organization is beneficial for due diligence, says Jeremy Warning, partner at law firm Heenan Blaikie in Toronto.

“It will serve one well should the need arise to come and tell the story about the steps that were taken to prevent an incident or accident,” he says. “The more integrated the official is into the system… the better the system is overall and the better the results that can be obtained for the organization.”

Mental health

The issue of mental health in the workplace is not new, but it is now getting more attention with the voluntary CSA standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace, says Ron Saunders, senior scientist and director of knowledge transfer and exchange at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). 

There is growing research evidence that psychological aspects of work can be hazardous. For example, recent studies from the Toronto-based IWH and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences indicate low job control is associated with an increased risk of hypertension among men and an increased risk of diabetes among women, says Saunders. 

The 24-7 workplace has resulted in less downtime and higher stress levels. Employees may also be struggling with stressors at home such as juggling child care and elder care. Front-line supervisors need to be equipped with the tool set of how to structure the conversation around mental heath, says Mills.

“People are very polite and don’t want to intrude or cross privacy lines or break down a barrier that has been put in place for very good reasons, it’s about how to have the conversation but not intrude,” she says.

A big change that has taken place in the past few years is that workers’ compensation board (WCB) claims are starting to be allowed for mental health issues, says Short.

“It started in B.C. and has migrated east across the country, and that’s starting to be something employers are taking more notice of… because it is starting to hit them — or potentially hit them — in the pocket books.” 


The Ministry of Labour in Ontario has announced a regulation establishing mandatory basic health and safety awareness training for workers and supervisors. The regulation comes into force July 1, 2014. 

This may present challenges for health and safety professionals and organizations to ensure the information and instruction provided to workers meets the minimum standards, says Warning.

“You may run into issues about ensuring training has been provided and then demonstrating it has been provided in accordance with the regulation,” he says. “And you may run into difficulties in delivering the training — there may be logistical challenges depending on the size of the workforce.”

This is of interest to OHS professionals across the country because jurisdictions often look to each other to implement new programs. If this goes well in Ontario, a similar regulation could potentially cascade throughout the country, says Warning. 

The Ontario Ministry of Labour is also working on developing training standards for highly hazardous work. The initial focus will be on training workers who work at heights as well as mandatory entry-level training for construction workers.  

Future discussions need to be had around what are the qualifications of a good trainer, says Mills. Trainers need to make sure the information is up to date, relevant and delivered in an appropriate method. 

“Training as a profession in health and safety may also need to think about how it should grow so you, yourself, are feeling competent and confident as to the expectations of the content you are actually delivering.”   

Aging workforce

In 2014, health and safety professionals will be increasingly charged with managing the needs and outcomes of an aging workforce. Employers are beginning to wonder what this means for their injury rates or the number of days people are off work if they are injured, says Saunders. 

There is also research emerging about workplace injuries being linked to chronic conditions, which especially affects older workers. 

“As people get older, we will have more chronic conditions prevalent among the workforce and the workplace will need to figure out how they can accommodate people with chronic or episodic conditions so they can be as productive as possible,” says Saunders.

Employers may need to think about some new, creative ways of accommodating the aging workforce. They may be able to shorten the duration of a task so the worker can take breaks or offer a shorter shift, says Mills.

“We can consider things like lighter weights for the task, so you may need to talk to your supplier about the size of the box, size of distribution and how it’s carried as being other elements to accommodate for the age-related factor,” she says. 

Vulnerable workers

OHS professionals need to turn their attention to vulnerable workers, according to the panellists. “Vulnerable workers” generally refers to those workers that face a greater exposure to conditions hazardous to health or safety and who lack the power to alter those conditions. This can include women, immigrants, youth and workers in temporary employment situations. 

“It’s an issue that has been getting more attention partly because of the way the labour market is changing and there are more people in precarious kinds of work and that may mean they are more reluctant to speak up about health and safety issues because they have less job security,” says Saunders.

Supervisors need to be equipped to encourage input from these workers, says Mills. 

“They are going to be the ones successfully engaging in conversation and if they are not equipped and not feeling supported themselves, they could inadvertently shut it down instead of creating a healthier dialogue,” she says. 

New workers and recent immigrants face higher injury rates than other groups, and more work needs to be done to promote better awareness of health and safety issues among these groups, says Saunders. 

Drugs and alcohol

A hot topic that gained a lot of press in 2013 was random drug and alcohol testing. The takeaway from the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Irving Pulp and Paper decision is that an employer must have a record that establishes some enhanced reasons to require random alcohol testing. Irving only had eight incidents relating to alcohol in the 15 years prior to the case, and that was ruled insufficient for conducting the testing. 

Going forward, business leaders may be asking OHS professionals to provide additional data that would assist them in justifying a random drug or alcohol-testing program. 

“They may turn to the safety professional to capture data about near misses or incidents which alcohol or drugs may have been a factor, any physical observations that may have been made of workers who are under the apparent influence of drugs or alcohol, or any evidence of consumption of either substance in the workplace during the course of work,” says Warning.

Another case in Sarnia, Ont., determined pre-employment drug and alcohol testing was unreasonable because the employer did not have a record that justified a need for it.

There is also a Suncor case percolating its way through the Alberta system that may provide further clarification on this complex issue, says Warning.