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Prairie provinces embark on prevention initiatives

By Michelle Morra
| www.cos-mag.com

Manitoba and Saskatchewan have the highest workplace injury rates in Canada and have shared that dubious distinction for years. And those lost-time injury statistics do not include the agriculture sector, where 1,769 workers were killed between 1990 and 2005, according to the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

We know farms are dangerous — what’s happening in the rest of the industries in these two provinces?

Looking at workplace injury statistics across all Canadian jurisdictions, “Saskatchewan and Manitoba stick out like a sore thumb,” says Phillip Germain, executive director for prevention at the Workers’ Compensation Board of Saskatchewan.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan share the top two spots for having the highest lost-time injury rates (LTI) in all of Canada. Despite a decreasing trend in these prairie provinces’ LTI per 100 workers — dropping from 5.6 to 3.8 between 2000 and 2009 in Manitoba, and from 4.9 to 3.44 between 2002 and 2009 in Saskatchewan — these rates are still high compared to the national average of 2.12.

“We certainly see that as something that needs to change,” says Mike Carr, Saskatchewan’s associate deputy minister, labour, employee and employer services division, Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour.

Saskatchewan is the province that pioneered occupational health and safety legislation in Canada in 1972. Carr believes that Saskatchewan’s regulatory regime still stacks up with the best in North America.

“But we need to engage in some positive social marketing about the hazards of work, and about the obligations that employers and employees have to ensure their safety,” he says. “We don’t intend to be a leader in the highest injury rate category, but a leader in the lowest injury rate. We take that very seriously.”

In Manitoba, there has been a shift as injuries in the manufacturing sector dropped by 35 per cent from 2000 to 2006 and continue to improve. Manufacturing represents the major influence in overall trends observed in recent years, but now the service sector has surpassed manufacturing for the first time.

The increase in service sector injuries, according to the WCB’s 2009 annual report, was driven by health care and its ongoing problem with musculosekeletal injuries (MSIs).  These are being addressed with a direct marketing campaign for health care professionals, including web-based videos on how to transfer patients.

Even as Manitoba’s LTI improves along with that of other Canadian jurisdictions, the number remains steady for one group of workers — those over the age of 45. The WCB has recently identified and is in the process of researching different tactics to address the issue.

“We’re still trying to figure out why exactly that is,” says Warren Preece, director of communications for the Manitoba Workers Compensation Board, “but it’s becoming clear that older workers are going to become an important demographic. It could be because of many factors — older people re-entering the workplace, people staying longer than they used to, or simply more older workers.”

Manitoba and Saskatchewan face the same workplace health and safety challenges as the rest of Canada. As for why Manitoba has the country’s highest LTI rate and Saskatchewan is a close second, there are theories.

Agricultural influence

Germain says that even though the sectors incurring high injury rates are outside the agricultural sector, they might be indirectly influenced by agriculture because, historically, that’s where many of the workers have come from.

“Welders, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, carpenters, they do all these things on their farms,” he says. “When they bring a certain mentality into the workplace — one that seems to accept workplace injuries as an inevitability of work — you could have people who are very capable but not formally trained in safety.”

Safety is not only a concern in Saskatchewan’s workplaces but also at home and at play. The province’s hospitalization rate as a result of unintentional injury is double the national average.

“Despite a 30 per cent reduction in our LTI rate, Saskatchewan still leads the nation on the job, in recreational field and at home,” says Carr. “It’s really about getting people’s attention and saying, ‘Let’s do what we do safely.’”

So perhaps a cultural shift is what’s needed. If safety is the task at hand, prairie workers are up for it. Case in point, Alberta’s oil and gas industry is “absolutely riddled with Saskatchewan farmers,” Germain points out, and once they undergo safety training and understand the risks, their responsibilities and safe work practices, they do just fine.

Despite a certain working culture unique to the prairies, Carr says that doesn’t negate the role of employers.

“I think employers want to do a great deal more than they have been doing,” he says.

Push for change

What Saskatchewan and Manitoba may lack on the charts they make up for in eagerness to change.

Manitoba has an aggressive public awareness campaign, including a web-based campaign that targets young people. The WCB, together with ChangeMakers Marketing Communications, earned a merit award at the 2010 International Association of Business Communicators’ Gold Quill awards in May for its “Assess the Risk” prevention campaign. The campaign examines the risks of common hazards young workers face on a daily basis.

In another prevention initiative, the Manitoba WCB has teamed up with industry safety associations to create the SAFE on Site outreach program to deliver more safety messages at construction sites.

And the province is tackling the issue of that traditionally dangerous sector — agriculture. In Manitoba, as of January 1st, 2009 the agricultural industry joined the list of those required to carry workers’ compensation insurance coverage. Any farm that employs paid workers (excluding family members) is now covered by the WCB.

To date, coverage is not mandatory for Saskatchewan farms.

“We haven’t got an awful lot of experience in terms of dealing with agriculture as a mandatory industry,” says Preece. “We’re learning the industry and working with the stakeholders as much as we can.”

Through its Research and Workplace Innovation Program, the Manitoba WCB has awarded the umbrella group Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) a grant to develop a two-year pilot project that will provide occupational health and safety services to farmers and farm workers, including one-on-one safety and health education and health tests. Trained farm safety specialists will conduct on-site farm safety reviews of potential hazards from machinery, livestock facilities and chemical storage, and propose measures to mitigate these risks.

The Saskatchewan WCB has partnered with WorkSafe Saskatchewan on a number of initiatives. These include a series of social marketing and multimedia campaigns, including print, radio and TV, to raise awareness of specific risks. As well, each year the WCB and Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour (AEEL) create a list of employers with safety performance issues, then come up with strategies to engage those employers, encourage them to improve safety and offer support as needed.

“We’ve seen fairly dramatic reductions,” Germain says. “The employers have been positive and cooperative, and many of them work their way off the list and stay off.”

WorkSafe Saskatchewan and Safe Saskatchewan (a not-for-profit organization established by a private-sector, public-sector coalition) recently created a charter based on the Conference Board of Canada’s CEO Health and Safety Leadership Charter, with the goal that safety be adopted as a core value resulting in changed attitudes and behaviours. Approximately 128 Saskatchewan employers signed the charter at the inaugural event on June 10th.

“We think it will have a significant impact,” says Carr.

Saskatchewan employers have widely endorsed WorkSafe’s outreach program for young workers, a readiness certificate program for 14- and 15-year-olds to prepare them for work and instill a basic knowledge of their rights and responsibilities in terms of health and safety. Similar programs also educate students in other age groups on the hazards of the working world. The province is working on these and other projects and has even adopted a “Mission Zero” target. It has increased its workplace inspections and clamped down on enforcement.

Germain (who is originally from Alberta) believes Saskatchewan is up to any task.

“When Saskatchewan decides they’re going to do something, they just roll up their sleeves and do it. It doesn’t become overly bureaucratic. In some ways we may be behind, but we may not always be behind. We could quickly catch up. Spirit and fortitude and just getting things done – that’s something we definitely have on our side.”

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Michelle Morra is an award-winning journalist and a formers COS editor. You can contact her at writemorr@yahoo.ca.

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