It’s big, bilingual and bustling. Quebec is Canada’s largest province geographically and is second only to Ontario in both population and economic influence. On the national occupational health and safety front, la belle province hovers around third place in terms of most lost-time injuries per 100,000 workers.
Tasked with decreasing that LTI rate for the past 30 years is the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST), which fulfills the roles of prevention, inspection, compensation and rehabilitation for Quebec workplaces. Pierre Turgeon, the CSST’s director of communications, says that as an insurance company with a budget of $2.3 billion and 4,000 employees, the CSST certainly has the resources to identify and correct any problem areas.
“When an accident happens we know the cause, the sector, and can pretty easily compile statistics,” he says.
He estimates that about 80 per cent of work-related accidents are from the same ongoing causes. These include falls from heights, electrical devices, back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders.
Finding ways to solve problems isn’t complicated either, he says. “It’s usually training, work organization and work methods. When you focus on those, you improve your numbers.”
But when those numbers span a vast economy fed by Quebec’s natural resources and other sectors, including high-tech areas ranging from aerospace to biotechnology to green energy, as a safety authority CSST has had to identify key areas on which to focus its prevention efforts. Those key areas are construction, machine-related incidents and the health and safety of young workers.
“Construction is a big piece of the puzzle,” says Turgeon. Working with every imaginable hazard from electricity to perilous heights, construction workers sustain a high percentage of the occupational injuries and deaths in the province. In 2008, Quebec had 48 of Canada’s 82 “Project Management, Construction” injuries. In all of Canada, there were 348 injuries in the “other heavy construction” category, and 190 of those were in Quebec.
To address this, the CSST launched an action plan 10 years ago that states zero tolerance in five critical areas of construction: fall hazards, electrical hazards, underground and scaffold collapses, asbestos, and silica dust. What they mean by zero tolerance is that if there is an infraction, the employers could be fined and have an immediate work stoppage until the corrections are made. Also, as for all sectors, the offending employers and their infractions are publicized in a local newspaper.
The CSST reports that accidents on construction sites are continually decreasing since 2004 and are down by 20 per cent despite an increase in hours worked.
All over North America, the automotive and other manufacturing sectors are seeing safety improvements as technology allows for better machine guarding and lockout, and as machines take over the dangerous tasks once done by humans. Yet many of the traditional issues persist — unsafe practices such as servicing a machine without unplugging it first because that’s how it has always been done. Turgeon says that sort of behaviour continues to be widespread.
“The facts are that machine-related accidents occurred in all kinds of activities, in all work sectors in Quebec,” he says. “The main cause was access to the machine’s danger zones.”
Quebec’s action plan to prevent machine-related injuries has included a TV campaign on locking out machines, user guides for machine operators, and tougher enforcement — including shutting down machines and stopping work where machines are found to be unsafe, and legal action against employers, suppliers or workers found in non-compliance.
The machine safety action plan has allowed a continual decrease in the number of machine-related injuries from 2006 to 2009.
The CSST calculates that every month in Quebec, a worker aged 24 years or younger dies of work-related causes. Year after year, the CSST tries to convince employers not to wait too long before training young workers. “The sooner young workers know the risks and their co-workers can help them,” Turgeon says, “the more chances you give them to be safe and not get injured.”
Quebec’s action plan for young workers includes school programs that educate children as young as age six. The aim is for children, from a very young age, to learn to adopt a prevention culture, recognize there are dangers and that there are ways to prevent them.
For two years so far, the CSST has run a TV campaign featuring poignant ads telling of the risks young workers take, and reminding employers that training and supervision are essential right from the worker’s first day on the job. The CSST’s “youth squad,” consisting of the Commission’s own younger employees, visits young workers at their worksites free-of-charge and talks to them about safety. Other initiatives involve an online contest, and even a gruesome web application that shows what the young worker would look like after an occupational injury.
How well these initiatives are working is hard to measure. “When there is no accident, we don’t know it,” Turgeon says. “A non-event is not in the statistics.”
But since 2000, in a province where an average of 20,000 workers under the age of 24 have been injured year after year, that number was down to 12,000 in 2009. Taking care of young workers benefits everyone, Turgeon says, because “nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’ll injure two workers today.’ We all want young workers to be safe.”
Safety in Numbers
All of these nice, proactive efforts aside, every jurisdiction trying to slash its injury statistics needs tough measures and Quebec is no different. The province has risen to the task by doubling the current fines for non-compliance as of July 1st, 2010, and will triple them as of January 2011.
An update of Quebec’s Occupational Health and Safety Act in June 2009 allowed for these increases, since penalties had ceased to have a deterrent effect. The act was revised to incite employers to take prevention measures to ensure workers’ health and safety. This is the first time the fines have been raised since they were first introduced in 1979.
In a press release, CSST’s president and chief executive officer Luc Meunier said these increases reflect the same incentive for change that employers had in 1979 and the fines imposed back then, and are now about on par after inflationary adjustments. Facing these higher fines will be a whole new challenge for Quebec employers.
Meanwhile, all of these efforts are making a difference. The year 2009 was the first time in 10 years Quebec had less than 100,000 lost-time injuries. In the 30 years of the CSST’s existence, the rate of occupational injuries and diseases in Quebec has decreased by 30 per cent, and that’s despite an increase of more than 300,000 workers between the years 2000 and 2009.
Quebec’s next focus will be on further developing a culture of prevention through its ongoing action plans, awareness campaigns, penalties for non-compliance and awards for innovation, as its injury rate creeps slowly downward.
Michelle Morra is an award winning writer and former COS editor. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.