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Labour Day highlights challenge for creating safe, healthy workplaces

The first Monday of September is Labour Day in Canada and many other countries around the world. One hundred forty years ago workers from the Printers Union in Toronto began to protest their working conditions and work hours. At that time it was illegal for workers to have unions. A barbaric law was still on the books, and the then-publisher of the Toronto Globe had 24 workers charged and jailed with conspiracy for their protests. 

Prime Minister Sir John A McDonald recognized the political benefits of repealing the law, (helped by being taken to Ottawa’s City Hall by protesting workers). In his speech on the steps of city hall he promised to “sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books.”

At the time, the industrial revolution was beginning to seriously impact workers, most of whom were not prepared or trained for the new world of work. The long work hours, the risks and the resulting injuries and deaths took their toll. One can only imagine the stress these workers and their families were under as they struggled to cope with unparalleled levels of change.

This was the beginning of change in the way work is done, and some leaders began to emerge who realized that to be successful, workers had to be on the job, healthy and injury free. To be sure, this enlightened leadership was comprised of a very limited group, but it was a start at change that recognized the role of workers in the success of a business, and a nation. It’s a change that is continuing to evolve even in today’s more enlightened societies.

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” This quote is from an early Labour Day speech delivered by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in Syracuse, New York, on Sept. 7, 1903. Those who know me have heard me use this quote before. It causes me to think in several ways:

•    For those who have accepted the challenge of working to assist people to create healthy and safe workplaces, we have accepted a role that is “hard work worth doing.”

•    For leaders — the opportunity and the responsibility to create work and a workplace that is worth doing and is fulfilling, safe, healthy and caring. Knowing that, in doing so, workers will ensure the best product is developed, delivered and maintained.

•    For workers — who feel their work is meaningful and fulfilling because leadership puts their health and wellbeing first, above all other priorities.

•    And for many in our country and society — just the chance to show that, despite their hidden injury and/or illness, they have an opportunity to be meaningful and fulfilling contributors to organizations and our communities.

•    Creating workplaces that are safe and healthy places for all employees will ensure that those with all forms of physical and mental illness and disability will be able to contribute and function at the highest level, and in doing so, ensure that the workplace itself is not making people ill.

To quote Dr. Ian Arnold, past-chair, Workforce Advisory Committee, Mental Health Commission of Canada: “Twenty to twenty five per cent of Canadians deal with personal mental health issues; The

workplace is not always part of the problem, but it can always be part of the solution.”

Research is showing us that we are not doing a good job and, in fact, the workplace is often the source of mental health issues. It is the growing killer of people and a major contributor to low productivity, defects in quality, and most importantly, the future health of our country.

We are at a new beginning; a period of transition. We know what we need to do to create the basis of safe workplaces. We aren’t there yet in a lot of places — but at the same time, we need to embrace the challenge of ensuring our workplaces are healthy and safe for all of our people, not just some. Safety is not solely about the mechanics of work. Safety is about the whole workplace and the whole person. This is the challenge we must take in 2012.

I hope we can have a meaningful and helpful discussion and exchange, because the time has come to work together, and health and safety leaders have to grab this opportunity to make a difference — to show that health and safety is not a silo, but on the top of the paradigm of success.

Let us re-commit to offering “the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”    

Maureen Shaw

Maureen Shaw is the former president and CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (now amalgamated into the Workplace Safety and Prevention Services). She spent over 14 years as leader of the IAPA, transforming it from a traditional safety training organization to one that approaches workplaces as psychologically safe and healthy places for people and business to be prosperous. Maureen holds key positions in several national organizations, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada where she is a member of the advisory committee on workforce mental health.
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