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Sustaining prevention in a world of change

By Laurie J. Blake

We all feel it: the nature of work is undergoing vast change. And, with recent trends such as globalization and changing technologies, as well as sudden crises, such as large-scale natural disasters and the economic downturn, it’s clear we’re in for yet more change. Top that off with changing demographics – masses of aging baby boomers, large waves of immigration, greater numbers of women, young workers, contingent workers, and so on in the workforce – and it’s enough to send any safety professional’s head spinning.

Yet, change is not new. There have been waves of immigration before, with the accompanying struggles of new Canadians to find work, and of employers trying to understand their needs. In fact, it was the 1960 Hogg’s Hollow Disaster, in which five Italian immigrant workers were killed, that provided the impetus for much needed reforms to workplace health and safety legislation in the 60s and 70s. There have also been large demographics shifts throughout history.

So, what’s different now? Maybe what’s fuelling the sense of urgency now is that the speed of change seems to be rapidly increasing. Or perhaps it’s that in this information age, the speed in which we learn about changes and the effects of those changes are almost immediate. Or, maybe it’s because while we know in our hearts that the nature of work is changing, and the workforce is changing right along with it, we don’t have the hard evidence or the statistics to prove that risks of accidents, injuries and negative health effects are changing right along with them.

This is also the conundrum facing OHS researchers, notes Danièle Champoux, a scientific professional at Québec’s Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

“New problems that are anecdotally visible in work milieus don’t always show up in statistics,” Champoux says. “There is a lag in time before trends, such as the effects of current economic situation, globalization, etc., are visible in statistics.”

Moreover, while statistics give the quantitative picture, the qualitative face of work is not reflected - for instance, the difference between the formal task (job description) versus doing what one has to do to get the job done, she says. This, coupled with the time lag in the effects of change on statistical information, makes it difficult for researchers such as those at the IRSST to get buy-in for studies dealing with the effects of change on accident prevention.

There is an “invisibility to new risks,” Champoux says, “so effects of the changing work context are not yet entirely visible and it can be difficult to convince IRSST board to fund projects meeting the priority and pertinence criteria.”

Using more of a European approach to study the sociological aspects of work organization, IRSST social scientists believe there is a broad spectrum of factors affecting accident risks and prevention strategies. Champoux says they believe that for prevention to be truly effective, it must also be sustainable. Broad approaches are needed to address those broad factors and to achieve sustainable prevention.

Movement of the workforce

Interestingly, their research and statistical analyses have found that risks are not in industries where one would naturally think of finding them: for instance, in the construction, forestry and petroleum industries. As work and the economy shift from primary industries and manufacturing to services jobs, the risks are also moving to other industries, such as health care.

In theory, work in the service industry might seem less risky, says Champoux, but indications of new risks are arising. The service sectors encompass lots of different types of workplaces from hairdressers to health care, some of which are “highly precarious.”

In addition, many of the workers in the services sector have no permanent status; they often work for agencies, change jobs frequently and have no union. A growing part of the labour force, many have hardly any training, are often paid less, and are not always given sufficient information on the potential risks of their jobs. Yet, these workers often have few alternatives but to work and be exposed to risks.

The IRSST is not the only organization studying the effects of change on the workforce and working conditions. The Institute for Work and Health in Toronto released two studies last summer that found, among other things, that immigrant men were more than twice as likely to have work-related injuries requiring medical attention than their Canadian counterparts. Moreover, immigrants were:

- 30 per cent less likely to work full-time,

- 65 per cent less likely to have employment benefits, and

- twice as likely to work in physically demanding jobs and/or in an unskilled job.

In a presentation for the 2007 Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety conference entitled Emerging Health & Safety Issues from Changing Workplaces, Michael Quinlan from the School of Organisation and Management University of New South Wales, Australia, noted the following workforce trends:

- Fall in permanent jobs and job security

- Growth of temporary, agency, fixed-contract work, micro business, subcontractors, part-time, home-based work and telework

- Multiple job-holding and unpaid overtime

- Growing shiftwork/stalled trend to shorter hours

- Increased participation by female workers with child care responsibilities

- Increase in temporary foreign workers

The growingly mobile nature of the workforce lends an additional problem for health and safety, says the IRSST’s Champoux. Current risk-factor knowledge is based on a model in which people stayed in the same type of job for long terms. In that situation, exposure and risk are more easily linked. Now, there are increasing numbers in precarious situations, but it’s hard to document work history to build the evidence of exposure to certain factors, creating a major hurdle in linking exposure to health problems.

In Alberta, meanwhile, the biggest challenge organizations have faced is the high turnover rates with the boom (and now bust) of the oil industry, says Brian Nodwell, president of Calgary-based SafetySync Corporation. People today frequently move to different industries and between companies in each industry.

“This trend toward higher turnover presents a challenge to safety departments everywhere,” says Nodwell. The workload on safety departments has virtually exploded. Orientation and training must be quick and cost effective, and records must be tracked instantaneously. Ideally, safety material should be available anywhere (be it on an oil rig, forestry reserve or wherever), and at any time of the day or night.

Nodwell believes that technology, and the Internet specifically, is the only solution that will provide the efficiencies needed to keep up with the evolving requirements.

“Accounting functions were computerized two decades ago,” he says, “and now very few young accounting clerks would even recognize a double-entry accounting ledger. The same migration will happen with safety management. Safety policies will be acknowledged online, safe operating procedures will be reviewed on cell phones, and every imaginable piece of legislation or Material Safety Data Sheet will be available at the click of a button.”

Ageing workforce

Not only is a huge chunk of baby boomers preparing to leave the workforce within the next 10 years, they are taking with them an incredible knowledge base that researchers fear is not being passed along.

Many of these workers have worked under the pressure of ever-increasing productivity and the stress of keeping up with rapid change under economic pressure. There are signs of premature aging among this group, increasing the likelihood that many, if not most, will indeed retire around age 65 and not remain longer in the workforce.

Employers will be left with a younger, energetic workforce, but one that is relatively unskilled in real-life work situations. “It’s hard to top the competence of experienced workers,” Champoux notes. “The ideal is to have the older workforce there to train newer workers – and this does not seem to be happening in great numbers.

“We are losing the skilled strategies of older workers to protect themselves,” she notes. “These OHS skills – ‘tricks of the trade’ – need to be transferred along with job-specific skills.”

Before the economic meltdown, she notes, some employers were recognizing the potential problem and attempted to develop strategies to capture the skills and knowledge. But the meshing constraints of improved output and limited financial resources are combining to limit the reserves of both employer and government communities.

Employers are now demanding even greater flexibility from their workforce and there is simply no time to build competencies. Workers are experiencing even less control over the kinds of jobs available, as well as how work is done.

Governments, while realizing the trends and problem areas, face growing pressure from both the economy and globalization to regulate less, not more.

Although we may be in for a tough few years, the economic problems are going to be resolved. The challenges of skills and knowledge loss are going to remain challenges to OHS, as is the changing nature of work and a mobile workforce.

It is crucial that information about these challenges is disseminated so that research results seep into collective knowledge to all workplace parties, says Champoux. “The IRSST has an emphasis on end-of-the-line knowledge transfer,” she notes. “Everyone needs and deserves to be informed about improving prevention as well as improving efficiency.”

Sustainable prevention is a worthwhile, achievable goal, which can be geared to constraints, incorporated into research plans, and can be changed and developed as work, and those who perform it, change and develop.


Laurie Blake is a freelance journalist and the editor of Workplace. You can reach Laurie at[/em]

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