Safety First and Last
By Jeff Thorne
The goal of Canadian health and safety law is to protect workers from the risks inherent in the workplace.
By Jeff Thorne
The goal of Canadian health and safety law is to protect workers from the risks inherent in the workplace. Health and safety laws may differ in details from province to province, but the underlying basics are always the same. Workers must be informed about the hazards associated with the work; they must be given the ability to participate in the process of making their workplace safer and, ultimately, they must have the right to refuse work when working conditions are unsafe. These principles are referred to as the three inalienable rights of workers and health and safety laws serve to spell out and embellish these ideas as well as to reinforce another essential concept known as IRS.
In Canada, IRS refers to a philosophy that is the lynchpin of health and safety: the Internal Responsibility System (IRS). The philosophy of the IRS holds that it is desirable for everyone in a workplace to be involved in making the workplace as safe as possible. Workers are responsible for identifying and reporting hazards to supervisors. Supervisors also look for hazards and take steps to ensure known and reasonably foreseeable hazards are addressed before they become a problem. The IRS holds that everyone in the workplace has responsibilities with respect to hazards; therefore the employer also has responsibilities, usually around creating rules and systems that ensure procedures for safe work exist.
The importance of employer commitment to health and safety cannot be overstated. Those employer efforts represent the due diligence of an employer to prevent incidents in the workplace and are critical to establishing a legal defense in the event of an incident and subsequent regulatory prosecution for violation of health and safety laws. The objective of the IRS is to get everyone in the workplace involved in the process of making the workplace safe. So it is not just up to the employer; supervisors and workers must be involved in the process. The goal is to have a workplace where everyone is aware of their duties and responsibilities and where they truly “buy-in” and believe in the importance of creating a safe and healthy work environment.
Buy-in can be a very powerful tool. Consider a workplace where an employer has developed a set of rules for the safe handling and use of chemicals. A comprehensive health and safety program will have detailed procedures that are task-specific and enforceable. Supervisors will ensure that workers are informed of the specific hazards and that job tasks are monitored for compliance and sub-standard acts and conditions are managed appropriately. But buy-in also means the workers become actively involved in the safe use and handling of chemicals. Thus workers will follow the rules because they have been educated about the hazards and report to management any hazards they might observe in the course of their workday. The power of buy-in is that it is not just the employer or management staff that are involved in health and safety, it is everyone in the workplace. Thus all workers are actively monitoring what is happening and reporting up the chain of command when things are not as they should be. Buy-in exploits the power of numbers.
What would a workplace look like if the culture of safety was not strong, where the level of buy-in was reduced and where the IRS was dysfunctional? In such a workplace the employer might have rules or company procedures that are not particularly well thought out. Worse, they may have been lifted whole from an inexpensive boilerplate health and safety template. In such a workplace, supervisors might be loath to enforce rules that are not really applicable to the specific workplace and would reinforce a perception that “this is really just for show.” In such an environment one would not expect workers to take their safety responsibilities seriously, no matter how earnestly upper management professed to believe in the ideals of health and safety.
In the coming weeks it will be the goal of this column to explore the means by which workplaces and employers achieve the goal of establishing a strong IRS and thereby avail themselves of the benefits due diligence.
Jeff Thorne is the manager of training and consulting at Occupational Safety Group.