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External influences motivate firms to improve OHS performance: Study

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When workplaces make large improvements in occupational health and safety, it seems some type of external influence helps bring internal factors into play, according to a study by the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto.

The study, Important Factors in Common Among Organizations Making Large Improvement in OHS Performance: Results of an Exploratory Multiple Case Study, found change was typically initiated by one or more external influences acting on the workplace, such as a government inspection, market pressure from industry clients or a serious injury happening in a similar business.

As a result, new knowledge, especially about OHS management and risk control, was sought out and brought into the workplace, orchestrated by an OHS champion who integrated this new knowledge into the workings of the organization. This was done by developing policies and procedures, ensuring their implementation, co-ordinating and communicating with parties throughout the workplace, and following up on identified issues.

“Past research has identified the characteristics distinguishing workplaces that do well in injury and disability prevention from those that don't,” said IWH scientist Lynda Robson, who led the study. “But not much is known about how and why low performers in health and safety become good performers. This study helps fill that knowledge gap.”

This champion, a “knowledge transformation leader,” is a key figure in the initiation of “breakthrough change.”

“Whether it was a newly hired OHS practitioner, someone already in the workplace given new responsibilities for OHS or even the owner, this person tended to have strong people and organizational skills, with an ability to work easily with, and get the support of, workers, supervisors and managers,” said Robson.

To conduct the study, Robson and her team combed through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics of 2,599 Ontario firms to find those that had undergone a large change over the period 1998 to 2008. They looked for firms that started out among the 50 per cent with the highest claim rates in their sectors, and ended up 10 years later among the 20 per cent with the lowest claims rates. Four workplaces from different sectors were ultimately chosen.

The IWH team learned that, once the change process was in place, other common factors came into play, including: positive social dynamics (such as energized JHSCs and worker empowerment), organizational responsiveness to worker concerns, supportive internal context (senior management support for OHS, good labour relations, low turnover), supportive simultaneous improvement in core operations (“lean,” quality initiatives) and a continuous health and safety improvement approach. In the end, these resulted in reduced risks in the workplace and, eventually, fewer injuries.

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