Nova Scotia seeing improvements in workplace safety

Nova Scotia is getting safer thanks in large part to employers, employees and health and safety professionals, according to government speakers at the Safety Services Nova Scotia Workplace Heath and Safety Conference in Halifax.
In 2014, the province saw its lowest number of lost-time injury claims since the statistics have been collected — 5,953. And there were fewer fatalities compared to the year before.

There is a lot of proof beyond the numbers that the province is getting safer, said Minister of Labour and Advanced Education Kelly Regan, speaking at the conference held March 22-24, which had 650 people in attendance. For many years, workplace safety did not receive the attention it deserved, she said, but now there is more awareness, support and collaboration.

"Families are talking to their loved ones before they go off to work reminding them to be safe, pedestrians walking by construction sites are keeping an eye on those workers and letting us know when they see something that concerns them, and young workers heading into their first jobs, know their rights," she said.

Fishing is one of the province's most dangerous industries plagued with a legacy of tragedy, but change is happening in that industry as well. For example, in November, fishermen in south western Nova Scotia decided to delay the start of lobster season due to safety concerns.

"(The decision) was made by those who rely on the catch to make a living and they decided the sea conditions pose too much risk and they actually delayed the season for five days," said Regan. "That tells you the priority they place on safety."

The government and several partners formed the Safe at Sea Alliance and it has been campaigning to increase the use of personal floatation devices (PFDs) among fishermen. Regan said she has been "extremely encouraged by the response."

Retailers just in south western Nova Scotia alone could not keep their shelves stocked with PFDs — sales in that area increased by 100 per cent in 2014.

The construction sector is seeing major improvements as well. It is now down to 504 lost-time claims in 2014, compared to more than 1,400 in 1993 — and its payroll is more than 3.5 times larger and the industry twice as big, said Bruce Collins from the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association (NSCSA).

"When we're running 5,400 active accounts and only have problems with 71 employers, we got to believe we are doing the right thing," he said.

Last year was the second year of the province's Workplace Safety Strategy and significant progress has been made. For example, the administrative penalties system has been updated, and it now includes a graduated system of enforcement.

"The regulatory updates will help us to focus more on a preventive approach while still targeting high risk and repeat offenders," said Christine Penney, senior executive director, occupational health and safety, Department of Labour and Advanced Education, speaking at the conference. "It's not about making penalties more lenient, it's about levying fines for the right reasons and focusing on educating workers and employers to prevent the injuries from happening in the first place."

The government will be redirecting monies collected from these fines to concrete projects that will help it achieve its goals, such as a farm safety workbook and workshops.

But there is still more work to be done in some sectors. The Workers' Compensation Board and the provincial government have launched a joint initiative aimed at manufacturing, health care and social services to encourage industry to adopt system-wide improvements that result in injury prevention, regulatory compliance and return to work programs, said Penney.

Health care is a particular concern, with this sector seeing the most lost-time injuries in the province. Sprains and strains are the most common injuries among these workers. A project called Soteria has been launched to help workers with safe patient handling techniques. (Read more here.)

But overall, change is happening across the province, said Regan, and that should be encouraging to all sons, daughters, mothers and fathers who want their loved ones coming home safe at the end of the work day.

"Never underestimate the power of conversation, we're seeing Nova Scotians engaged in conversations about workplace safety in a way we have not seen before," she said. "The conversations are happening and they are important, but the real change happens from making safety a priority in every workplace every day."