Plight of the vulnerable workerWritten by Mari-Len De Guzman 09 August 2012
Roundtable discussion on vulnerable workers: (from L-R) Sandra Miller, Wayne Lewchuk, Ron Saunders, Landon Young Paul Wright
In a roundtable forum hosted by Canadian Occupational Safety, thought leaders from industry, labour, legal and academia gathered to discuss the challenges faced by vulnerable workers and offered up ideas on what’s needed to improve workplace protection.
Out with the old
Vulnerable workers have historically posed a significant challenge for employers, but the realities of today’s workplace make the issue even more pressing. Vulnerable workers are those whose nature of work or other variants put them at a higher risk of being injured on the job than regular workers.
Today, it’s not just the nature of the job that is creating workplace vulnerability. A wide range of factors — age, newness to the job, language and cultural barriers, literacy and precariousness of work — are contributing to risks and the likelihood of injury.
“The issue with vulnerable workers has been there for as long as I have been in prevention — which is more than 12 years,” says Paul Casey of the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA). The challenge today, he points out, is identifying who the vulnerable workers are.
Panelists say vulnerable workers today are those without a voice or who feel powerless to voice concerns about their safety at work for fear of repercussions. They are those who, because of newness to the job, language, literacy or cultural barriers, may not be aware of the hazards in the workplace or their rights as workers.
The changing dynamics in the workplace adds to the rising concern around vulnerable workers.
According to McMaster University’s Wayne Lewchuk, the relationship between workers and employers has been changing over the past few years, with companies relying increasingly on temporary work agencies and short-term contracts to seek out workers.
This short-term relationship is creating vulnerability among workers as they find themselves often feeling powerless to raise concerns about workplace health and safety issues.
“There are potential costs to putting your hand up and saying, ‘I think this is a dangerous practice.’ You may not get your contract renewed,” Lewchuk says. “Sixty per cent of people who feel they’re exposed to toxic substances would be unwilling to raise that with the employer for fear of future implication, such as job loss.”
Identifying worker vulnerability in the workplace means more than just assessing, identifying and controlling the physical hazards. Employers need to also look at other factors like demographics and literacy level of the workforce.
Ensuring that training programs are cognizant of and responsive to language and literacy problems, for example, is key.
It’s part of a conscious effort to make health and safety training at Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) more effective, says Sandra Miller.
“We’re cognizant of (literacy levels) and try to figure out how to bring that into the workplace. How do we use different modes of delivery to reach vulnerable workers — whether it’s by age, by immigration, language challenges?” Miller says.
In-depth knowledge about vulnerable workers is limited and more research needs to be done in the area, according to the Institute for Work and Health’s Ron Saunders.
“Often, we identify (vulnerable workers) into groups — like young workers, new immigrants, temporary workers, older workers. And in at least some of those cases there is research linking people in those groupings being at greater risk than your average worker of injury,” Saunders says.
He believes, however, more research is needed to truly understand vulnerability in the workplace beyond just grouping workers into categories.
For instance, earlier studies showed young workers are more likely to be injured their first month on the job than the more senior workers. In fact, later studies by IWH scientists found the risk actually applies to new workers, not just the young ones.
“They found that really it wasn’t age; it was being new. It was people, regardless of age, who are in their first month on the job, having triple the injury risk than people who have been on the job for a year or more,” says Saunders.
He says research should focus on the underlying characteristics of the worker, the job and the workplace to really find out what are driving those risks and creating vulnerability.
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