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Opinion: National Day of Mourning offers Canada a chance to rethink worker health and safety

National Day of Mourning should be used to challenge misconceptions about occupational health and safety, and advance safer workplaces for Canadians.
On April 28, Canadians remember and honour those who have been killed or suffered injuries or illness at work.

Canadians go to work each day expecting to return home safely, but for too many workers and their families, this expectation is unrealistic. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, there were 1,081 workplace fatalities in 2021 alone.

Each year on April 28, Canadians remember and honour those who have been killed or suffered injuries or illness at work. This day, known as the National Day of Mourning, was established by the Canadian Labour Congress in 1984 and made official in 1991.

Four decades have passed since the National Day of Mourning’s first observance, and the annual toll from workplace fatalities in Canada continues to remain high. But just how deep and pervasive is the problem? And what can we do about it?

Widespread suffering

Those who consume news media can be forgiven for thinking the number of murders in Canada each year vastly exceeds the number of work-related fatalities. One reason for this is the excessive news coverage of murders relative to other causes of death like workplace fatalities.

The real numbers tell a different tale. About 700 people are murdered annually in Canada, while close to 1,000 people die at work each year. But one study from the Journal of Canadian Labour Studies argues the actual number could be 10 to 13 times greater.

The suffering goes well beyond the 1,000 workers who die each year. Within the workplace, colleagues who have witnessed horrendous tragedies are affected, as are leaders who have to break the awful news to family members and motivate surviving employees.

Outside the workplace, the emotional and financial burden on family members has been ignored for too long. What if the news media devoted as much attention to workplace safety incidents as we did to murders? Would the public demand that management, workers and government authorities work together to enhance workplace safety?

Myths about worker control

The National Day of Mourning presents us with an opportunity to reflect on workplace fatalities and the enormous toll they take on affected families, co-workers and organizational leaders, and commit to making a difference.

We can start by dispelling some major misconception that are inhibiting progress in workplace safety and health. One misconception among managers is that, because workplace safety is so important, every aspect of employees’ work requires control.

Yet, based on extensive interviews with senior managers and employees and an analysis of documentation from 49 manufacturing firms in the United Kingdom, researchers found the opposite is true.

Among the five key types of human resources approaches, only one was associated with fewer workplace injuries: higher levels of empowerment, which included autonomy and employee participation. Even managers that ceded small, incremental amounts of control to employees had a positive impact.

Myths about safety costs

A second common misconception is that government safety inspections can be costly; yet again research suggests otherwise.

According to a comparison of more than 400 workplaces that were not targeted for safety inspections in California, and an equal number that were randomly selected for inspections between 1996 and 2006, random safety inspections work.

Five years after random inspections, companies saw a 9.4 per cent reduction in injury rates, and a 26 per cent reduction in costs associated with the injuries.

These gains in safety were achieved without any cost to employment numbers, sales, credit rating or likelihood of firm survival, which are frequent concerns in the face of government safety inspections.

Given this, policymakers should feel reassured that increasing the number of safety inspectors is a wise investment in both injury reduction and cost reduction.

Myths about sick leave

The National Day of Mourning’s calls for reconsideration of workplace safety are particularly relevant in the era of COVID-19. The pandemic highlighted the misconception that paid sick leave hurts organizations.

Year-after-year, more people die at work from health-related issues, such as respiratory diseases and occupational cancers, than from safety incidents.

A 2020 study from Ontario’s Peel region revealed that 25 per cent of the employees surveyed went to work when they had COVID-19 symptoms; 88 workers even did so after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Why? Because they could not afford to lose any pay. If we are to protect employee health and limit the spread of infection, we need to de-politicize perceptions around basic workplace programs such as paid sick leave.

Worker health programs and policies need to be implemented based on the best of evidence, rather than being a subject for negotiations between labour and management or the whims of the government.

Paid sick leave policies and programs are primary tools in preventing the spread of infections, thereby benefiting employees and protecting organizations and their communities. Employees should be reassured that they will not lose pay when they protect themselves and others by staying home when ill.

A new approach is needed

We need to change the widespread perceptions that workplace safety requires the tight grip of management, that random safety inspections hurt organizations and detract from profitability, and that paid sick leave is an expensive luxury.

On the contrary, employee autonomy and engagement, random safety inspections, and paid sick leave are some of the practices that management should welcome to develop safe and healthy workplaces.

Another small action that could have wide-ranging benefits is to change the very language of occupational safety. For too long, “workplace accident” has been the term used for any workplace safety incident or injury.

Why is this problematic? By definition, “accident” implies an event that is unpredictable, unplanned and uncontrollable. If that is indeed the case, we should be forgiven for not taking any action.

Yet post-injury and inquest reports tell us that the opposite is true: these incidents are invariably predictable, preventable and controllable. The time has come to change how we think about occupational health and safety.

The Conversation

Julian Barling receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Alyssa Grocutt receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.