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Regulatory language impedes ergonomics

By Mari-Len De Guzman

On April 3rd, 2006 the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced it woulddeploy workplace inspectors across the province. These inspectors wouldbe targeting 6,000 workplaces including industrial, health care,retail, office and administrative environments.

Accordingto Ministry of Labour spokesperson Belinda Sutton “the inspectors willbe targeting high-risk workplaces in addition to providing informationand discussing ergonomic hazards, identifying ergonomic-related issuesand taking preventive steps.” 

This blitz forms part of the Ministry of Labour’s Pains & Strains campaign, and the overall agenda of decreasing MSI-related injuries in Ontario by 20 per cent by 2008.

At the federal level there is now a proposed regulatory text under the Canada Labour Code, introducing amendments to the Regulations Amending the Canada Occupational Health & Safety Regulations. Part of that proposal reads:

“1. Subsection 19.1 (1) The employer shall, in consultation with and with the participation of the policy, workplace committee or the health and safety representative, develop, implement and monitor a program for the prevention of hazards including ergonomics-related hazards, in the workplace that is appropriate to the size of the workplace and the nature of the hazards and that including the following….”

Labour ministries along with compensation boards across Canada are struggling with the increased costs and lost time related to musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) in the workplace.

Compensation boards in Canada have a similar agenda, as does the federal code, which oversees occupational health and safety for all federally regulated workplaces such as banks, transportation, oil and gas pipelines and federal agencies.

Special committees

Underlying the initiative in Ontario, at the federal level and, as was the case in 1998, in British Columbia, were special committees.  One of the agendas of the federal and provincial committees is to undertake steps required to regulate ergonomics. Having observed the process for regulation of ergonomics in B.C. in 1998, I feel it is important for employers to truly understand the politics and non-business-friendly agenda, which underlie many of these decisions.

Surveys of employers in B.C., which we have conducted over the last five years, have shown that less than 15 per cent of employers state they are in compliance with the 1998 mandated Ergonomic Regulations. The recurrent theme among respondents includes: “We are so heavily regulated now this was just one more piece of regulation which we cannot handle;” “We have the regulations but WorkSafe has not provided us with any resources, just policing and penalties;” or “We already had a full-scale ergonomic process in place and the regulations have not helped our company at all.”

Regulatory challenges

Regulatory language in the absence of any guidelines is like having a junk yard dog barking at you, threatening you but not giving you any sort of a map or a way to get out of that junk yard.

Here is an example of regulatory language: “2. Section 19.2 Federal Regulations (2) In implementing the prevention program, the employer shall ensure that ergonomics-related hazards are identified and assessed and that they are eliminated or reduced, as required by subsection 19.5 (1), as much as is reasonably possible and that any person assigned to identify and assess ergonomics-related hazards has the necessary instruction and training.”

Part 4 of the General Conditions, Ergonomics Requirements with WorkSafe BC states that employers: “4.47 must identify factors in the workplace that may expose workers to risk of musculoskeletal injury; 4.48 When factors that may expose workers to a risk of MSI have been identified, the employer must ensure that the risk to workers is assessed; and 4.50 The employer must eliminate or, if that is not practicable, minimize the risk of MSI to workers.”

What follows are issues and challenges associated with ergonomic regulatory language, that I believe employers, unions and employees should be aware of.

1. Regulatory language, in the absence of standardized, evidence-based guidelines for both the quantification of ergonomic hazards and risks, as well as a method to eliminate and control these hazards, may result in the issuance of some very nebulous, non-standardized orders by inspectors.

The following is an excerpt from an actual written order we reviewed for an employer. “The tables being lifted by the cleaning staff are too heavy and are causing low back injuries. (The employer) is ordered to ensure the tables are either changed to be lighter weight in materials, smaller in size or to be lifted by two people at all times...” In this case, the employer had 30 days to comply.

My question is one all parties should be asking of their labour ministries, compensation boards or federal Department of Human Resources and Social Development: How much is too much weight? How can the inspector know that the table size and weight are conclusively leading to back injuries? What guidelines should the employer use to show whether these orders are appropriate and how should the employer improve the design in going forward?

On the other side of the equation, the lack of guidelines can lead compensation boards or ministry inspectors to recommend some bizarre and unfair “solutions” to employers, with no regard to the reality of implementing these “solutions”.

To illustrate further, the following is quoted from an order written by an inspector with a compensation board in Canada: “Raising the elbows above waist height has been shown to increase the risk for musculoskeletal injuries. We recommend the assembly line be lowered to ensure the worker’s elbows are not raised above waist level.” The cost to lower the assembly line at this facility is more than $1.7 million, by the way.

And one more consideration: if raising our elbows higher than the waist leads to MSIs, we all need to stop reaching for dishes in our cupboards and we should no longer place our hands onto the steering wheels of our cars.

2. Any good ergonomic consulting firm in Canada can provide you with names of thousands of Canadian employers that have excellent, effective, safe and cost-effective ergonomic processes and programs in place, and they implement them in the absence of regulatory language. When regulatory language, as in this case, assumes that all employers, health and safety committees, unions and employees are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to compliance, it will only succeed in punishing the good employers and will not encourage those at the bottom of the barrel or the 10 to 15 per cent of employers in any way.

3. Regulatory language tends to be so restrictive in its directives and written orders that it prevents employers, committees, unions and employees from being creative in its approach to ergonomic-related issues. In a sense, the methods for identifying and solving the issues become lacking of any regard to the nature and size of the business, the business culture and resources unique with each organization, and the creativeness of H&S committees in resolving problems associated with health, safety, prevention and disability management.

These are some of the major issues that arise when regulatory language is used particularly in the absence of

objective, evidence-based and current guidelines that are realistic relative to the agenda of businesses in Canada to remain profitable and competitive in the marketplace.

So what are the solutions?

We have the solutions already in place in Ontario, and in each of the jurisdictions outside of Saskatchewan and B.C. That is, keeping ergonomics as one of the safety-related issues referred to in the General Duty Clauses of OH&S Regulations in each province and territory.

The solution is also achieved by increasing charges, rates, penalties and administrative charges against employers that tolerate high numbers of MSI-related injuries. The solution lies with programs such as the Pains & Strains blitz in Ontario, but with more initiatives aimed at increasing awareness around the program. Our survey of over 60 employers in Ontario in the last year reveals that only less than two per cent are aware of this blitz, let alone how to comply.

Finally, the solution lies with employers and how they are using their OH&S and ergonomic programs as a vehicle for recruiting, hiring and maintaining a dwindling supply of good employees.

The solutions are in place within Canada towards prevention and management of musculoskeletal injuries. The proposed Ergonomic Regulations in Ontario and at the federal level are redundant, and simply another piece of regulatory language that make Canadian employers less competitive in the global economy. The science of ergonomics is an important way for employers of all sizes and industries to improve productivity, quality and efficiencies. It is also a science that leads to the prevention of human error, accidents and MSIs. Employers who realize this will adopt the science and integrated it fully into the company’s culture and day-to-day operations, as a means of becoming more competitive in the marketplace. More regulations will not impact good, viable and sustainable employers in Canada.

Jane Sleeth is managing director of Optimal Performance, an ergonomic management and consulting firm based in Toronto. You can reach her at

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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