Employers and many legislators on both sides of the 49th Parallel are heavily armed against ergonomics programs, regarding them as regulation by stealth. So why wasn’t the Province of Ontario’s “Pains and Sprains” campaign used as target practice when it was introduced in January? The Ergonomics Report™ took that question to two insiders in the program, asking them also about the potential impact of the recent election of a Conservative federal government on ergonomics protections for Canada’s workers.
Ontario Labour Minister Steve Peters introduced the campaign at a press conference on January 26, describing it as a program to increase awareness about ergonomic-related injuries in the workplace. Education and inspection will be the mainstays, he said, with the focus on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). He described these as a significant but often overlooked workplace hazard that account for some 42 percent of all lost-time injuries.
The program begins on April 1, when ministry inspectors will visit high-risk workplaces in the industrial and health sectors to assess MSD risk factors. They will review each organization’s experience with MSDs and any preventive steps they have taken, and provide an information sheet outlining ways to identify and prevent the problems.
An Ongoing Battle
Jonathan Tyson, MASc, CPE, has been involved in the drive for ergonomics protections from within the province’s health and safety system since 1994. “It has been an ongoing battle to get the system to pay more attention to MSD (and) MSD prevention,” he explained. In 1998 ergonomists published an internal position paper that recommended making MSD prevention a priority. It was well received at high levels, Tyson said, but nothing much changed because of internal and external resistance. Opponents argued that MSDs are not serious and can’t be a priority because lives and limbs are not lost. The extra burden on employers struggling to meet basic health and safety requirements, the complexity of MSD issues and factors, such as an employee’s genetics and lifestyle, beyond employers’ control comprised the rest of their case.
He attributes progress on the campaign to pressure for a regulation from labour organizations and their allies in the provincial government, as well as the efforts of ergonomists from all of the health and safety organizations in Ontario.
Tyson is Project Manager of the OHSCO MSD Prevention Strategy for Ontario. OHSCO is the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario. It is made up of representatives from the province’s Ministry of Labour, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and all of the province’s health and safety associations. Recalling the evolution of the campaign, he said the Ministry appointed a panel of labour and employer representatives in February 2005 to recommend ways to promote the prevention of MSDs in Ontario workplaces and motivate MSD prevention activities.
Clarifying the relationship between the initiatives, the ergonomist said the Ministry’s “Pains and Strains” campaign and the OHSCO MSD Prevention Strategy for Ontario are separate but linked, with the Ministry setting out an expectation that MSD issues will be addressed in workplaces and providing training to their inspectors but the OHSCO strategy work will provide some of the foundation to allow that to happen.” The MSD Prevention Guideline for Ontario is being developed as part of the strategy, he said, and it was planned and underway before the Minister announced his advisory panel or the “Pains and Strains” campaign.
Though emphasizing the Ontario program falls short of a regulation, Cathy Walker, a member of the negotiating team and the national Director of Health and Safety of the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), regards it as having “the potential to do a lot.” More than 10 million people – more than a third of the people in Canada – live in Ontario, the industrial heartland of the country, she pointed out, and “this is where all the big manufacturing happens.” She sees it sending a clear signal to employers that they must take the initiative in preventing MSDs. It’s a major initiative, she added, but we are certainly not going to stop our other pressure for a regulation.
She commended the scope of the planned guidelines and believes the inspectors will “come out swinging” and write a lot of orders. “You may not be aware they have expanded the inspectorate – doubled it, actually. Within the last two years the final group of inspectors are just being chosen now. And a lot of these are young, gung-ho people, a lot of women, a lot of people from non-traditional backgrounds … they are not just coming out of construction now. Women from healthcare, and that sort of thing. So I’m quite optimistic there will be a lot happening in the area of ergonomics.”
She attributes the province’s success in getting the program on the road to the tripartite nature of the negotiations. Big employer organizations, labour and government are all in agreement that this should be moving ahead, she said, and “the bigger employers have all bought in.”
There is no way to measure Ontario’s achievement without looking at typical case made against ergonomics programs. Tyson listed several he encountered, and Walker talked about the most common one in an article she wrote in 1998. “Corporations … claim there are too many (regulations) and that red tape restricts the ability to remain competitive.” She rejected the claim, pointing out that despite existing regulations Canadian corporations are among the most profitable in the world.
Inclusive planning and finesse appears to have kept the Ontario program moving. “The Ministry’s ergo panel was made up of reps from labour and business and they were able to agree on the need for greater awareness of MSD and greater training for the Ministry of Labour inspectors,” Tyson recalled. He sees the involvement of employers as a factor that could keep them on the program’s side in the future. But he foresees potential difficulties with some types of workplaces, e.g. construction, if the guideline is seen as a one-size-fits-all approach. He also noted that sector specific MSD prevention materials will be created to help address the concerns of specific sectors.
Tyson anticipates that opposition could increase if the Ministry issues orders for companies to deal with hazards before the MSD guidelines have been completed, but concedes it is a small risk because the Ministry is aware of the need to move cautiously. He said the vital preparations include ensuring inspectors are well trained on MSD hazards, that appropriate information is available to employers and workers, and that employers have sufficient time to digest any guidance materials before stronger steps are taken.
Walker regards efforts to win the support of the big three auto makers as time well spent. “We have been able to bargain particularly through the big three auto manufacturers some very good provisions in our collective agreement and really do a lot with ergonomics, so they are on side on the issue, and they are certainly very influential in Ontario.” They have some really good examples of how they have really reduced injuries, she added. “Short of regulations, a lot of the larger employers really do support ergonomics,” she said. “They were not the main lobbyists for it, but they were happy enough to come to the table.”
And the CAW negotiator attributed some of the success of the negotiations to the inclusion of small business in the manufacturing task force. “We couldn’t quite get the employers to agree to a regulation, but they are all in agreement that musculoskeletal injuries are an appalling level in Ontario and there must be initiatives in the ergonomics area.”
A Subtle Approach
Finesse in the language of the program is helping it over bumps, but more is needed.
“We need to try to stop using the term ‘ergonomics program,’ or better still, ‘ergonomics regulation,’ Tyson said. “We (I) have been struggling to stop us from using that term and to focus our attention on the issue of MSD prevention and only MSD prevention. Referring to ergonomics confuses the issue and provides those who are opposed to taking any action on MSD with a huge opportunity (and perhaps a valid argument) to oppose things. They ask what is ergonomics? They are told it is a science/art with a very, very broad scope and then they say how can we even consider regulating that? Our aim here has been, and continues to be, to not use the word ‘ergonomics’ in our discussions. Our MSD Prevention Strategy for Ontario does not use the word ergonomics even once. We continue to struggle with some who do not want to stop referring to ‘ergonomics injuries’ – ‘ergonomics related injuries’ is just as bad, but you can’t win them all. And unfortunately the labour organizations continue to call for an’ergonomics regulation’.
Another element of finesse is the emphasis on favorable features such as its potential for reducing the cost to employers of employee injuries.
These Teeth Can Bite
This “awareness campaign” can bite because enforcement is part of the package, but it’s an aspect downplayed to enhance the guideline feel of the program.
“As inspectors are provided with more training and knowledge about MSD (and) MSD prevention,” said Tyson, answering a question about the program’s enforcement role, “it might be expected that they begin to ask tough questions about what steps an employer (and) workplace (are) taking to prevent them. … You might not know that Ontario’s Ministry of Labour inspectors are already able to issue ‘orders’ related to MSD hazards under the ‘general duty’ clause of Ontario’s health and safety act. The Ministry of Labour also has five ergonomists who have the enforcement powers of any other inspector … The inspectors can and do issue orders related to MSD, but often they will request assistance from one of the Ministry’s ergonomists who will make a decision on whether or not an order will be issued.”
Walker also commends the teeth in the MSD program. As it was set up by the Ministry of Labour, she said, it was quite clear to employers that the program will be enforceable. “Within the Ontario provincial jurisdiction they have been prosecuting employers for violations of the law by fairly decent fines. … Now in the area of ergonomics, of course, it’s going to be new ground because generally you have a victim when you go through the prosecution system. … So that is a piece to the puzzle that remains to be put in place in Ontario.” It will be interesting to see what happens once they start writing orders, if the orders aren’t complied with, she added.
Ontario’s MSD program isn’t an anomaly in Canada. Saskatchewan and British Columbia have enacted ergonomics regulations, and other several other provinces and territories offer guidelines. Alberta’s is a regulation in everything but name. Quebec is testing a preventive method called the “QEC Tool,” which will evaluate MSD risk factors.
And hazard prevention programs are required in federally regulated workplaces. The Hazard Prevention Program Regulations of the Canada Labour Code is a high-impact program as it covers the national transportation, communications and banking sectors – some 10 percent of the country’s working population.
The question is how long Canadians workers will enjoy existing ergonomics regulations and programs in the changing political climate. The federal Liberal Party government was voted out of office in January, replaced by the Conservative Party. Though the Tory leader, Stephen Harper, promised during his campaign not to sit in the pocket of the Republican leadership in Washington, he is expected to be likeminded with President George W. Bush on certain issues. One is deregulation. Bush struck down the very new federal ergonomics regulation of the previous Democratic administration in 2001 soon after taking office. If the new Prime Minister chooses the deregulation path, employers and Tory legislators could begin rolling out the big guns against hard-won protections for workers.
Neither Tyson nor Walker foresee a “shock and awe” attack on existing gains, and both seem cautiously optimistic.
“My opinion is that the new federal Conservative government will not have any effect on the development of an ergonomics related regulation under the Canada Labour Code,” Tyson said. “The work on developing the regulation has involved organized labour and employer groups and there has been a great deal of agreement as to what some of the key issues are that need to be covered by the regulation.”
Walker’s optimism is more guarded. “One hopes they won’t be quite as bad as George Bush,” she said, “but they are definitely not a progressive force. However, they are a minority, so often these issues go through regardless of who is in power. That has certainly been the tradition for about the last 25 years. … I’m sure the bureaucrats federally will be twiddling their thumbs to see which way the wind is blowing … because it is certainly quite possible that a new minister might put the kibosh on it.”
Sources: Ontario Ministry of Labour; Jonathan Tyson; Cathy Walker
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-02-15.