Behave or else.” Sounds like something a frustrated parent might say to their child. But is this message appropriate in a workplace setting?

Believe it or not, workers are often on the receiving end of this kind of threat. “They are told, “Work safe. Fail to do so, and face discipline or worse.” Conversely, they are told, “Work safe, and prizes and bonuses will be your reward.”

Such are the hallmark messages of behaviour-based safety systems popular in many Ontario workplaces. By behaviour-based safety (BBS), I refer to a wide range of programs designed to effectively blame workers for work-related disability, disease and death. Absent from this approach is any appreciation of the fact that hazardous exposures, not careless worker behaviours, are the cause of worker suffering.

The real cause of worker suffering

Experience of the workplace and much evidence tell us this victim blaming is misplaced at best. For instance, workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders because of several factors, including how the work is organized, the tools and work stations they are given to do the job and the pace at which they are expected to work. Among other things, work-related disease is caused by exposures to asbestos, diesel exhaust, noise and a host of toxic chemicals. Moreover, workers are all too often killed because risk factors that give rise to workplace violence go unassessed and unaddressed, proper fall protection equipment is not supplied and confined space entry procedures are not developed. And the common thread in all these circumstances? Workers have virtually no control over the hazards they face.

A comprehensive U.S. House of Representatives report titled, Hidden Tragedy: Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, came to a similar conclusion. Rejecting the “careless worker” theory they wrote, “In order for an accident to happen, an unsafe condition must be present. … Human error is almost never one of the root causes.”

Here in Ontario, the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) has also weighed in on the issue of BBS systems. While they acknowledge BBS as having a “long tradition,” they recommend occupational health and safety management systems should have “a dominant commitment to control and eliminate workplace hazards under the hierarchy of control principle.”

Hazard-based approach

The hierarchy of control begins with the premise hazards are best dealt with at their source, eliminating them from the workplace. Controls along the path attempt to limit exposure between the hazard source and the worker. Controlling a hazard at the worker level, for example with personal protective equipment (PPE), is often least effective, and as such, least desirable. Most health and safety laws in Ontario and Canada acknowledge PPE should be used only in special circumstances and for limited periods of time.

Unfortunately, far too many Ontario workplaces use PPE as a first and only response. They mistakenly believe PPE to be some sort of silver bullet to address considerable employer responsibilities for worker health and safety. They seemingly don’t understand in many instances PPE causes new hazards. Take for instance, the response of telling workers to “avoid” noise with ear plugs, instead of controlling known sources of noise. Ear plugs may cause social isolation and accompanying stress; warning signals of impending harm may be missed; and all too often ear plugs don’t work as advertised.

Supporting Ontario workplaces

For these reasons and more, Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) training is predicated on a hazard-based approach. Our training supports workplaces in their efforts to identify, assess and control, or better yet eliminate, hazardous working conditions. Our offerings include:

  • Hundreds of existing hazard-specific and industry-specific training programs
  • Mandated Certification training for Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC)
  • Programs for legally required worker training such as Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), working at heights, confined space entry, workplace violence and powered lift trucks
  • Training on common issues such as stress, ergonomics and indoor air quality
  • Customized training on a fee-for-service basis.

WHSC has lent this kind of support to workers, their representatives and employers in thousands of Ontario workplaces, regardless of sector, size, location or union status for over 30 years.

As Ontario’s designated health and safety training center, we are dedicated to helping to ensure workers are provided safe (and healthy) work, instead of wrong-headedly insisting they need only work safe.