Friday, December 18, 2009

Ontario Labour Critic calls for Competition with WSIB

One might assume legislation that makes a Canadian WCB the exclusive workers’ compensation provider would extend some certainty to that status. Recent developments in other jurisdictions could dispel that assumption.

A few years ago, West Virginia was an exclusive state fund workers’ compensation insurer. Today, it faces competition from private insurers in that state. The New Zealand Accident Compensation Corporation is about to have its exclusivity removed for the workers’ compensation portion of its mandate.

Ontario’s Workplace Insurance and Safety Board (WSIB) has been under financial pressure for some time. It currently has an unfunded liability of about 47%. In other words, WSIB has about half (53%) the money it needs to cover the liabilities—the health care, permanent disability and other benefits injured workers are entitled to.

The way out of this hole is not easy. Clearly, reducing the number and severity of workplace injury and disease cases is part of the solution but unlike BC, which has the main legislated responsibility for occupational safety and health, WSIB is only one player in the prevention role. The Road to Zero strategy requires substantive and continuous reductions in the injury rate in order to have any impact on the unfunded liability.

Other options for WSIB include increasing premiums and cutting benefits. With current premiums among the highest in Canada, there is little appetite for any increase in premiums. In a sense, employers in the WSIB system are already experiencing an intergenerational transfer of costs. The unfunded liability of today is predominantly a result of injuries that occurred in the past. Slashing benefits would clearly hurt those who already are bearing the entire human and much of the financial costs of work-related injury, illness and disease.

What about improving the return on investments? As every investor knows, investments that offer higher returns carry increased risk of large losses. With market volatility and economic uncertainty the way they are today, becoming more aggressive with investment strategies is probably not a great idea.

Recently, the Labour Critic for the Official Opposition in the Ontario legislature introduced a private members Bill to open WSIB to competition. Randy Hillier, who recently sought to lead the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, saw his Bill 219 debated in the legislature on November 19, 2009. An explanatory note contained in the Bill states:

The Bill amends the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997 to allow an employer, at any time, to opt to participate in an insurance plan that is offered by a private-sector insurer, instead of the insurance plan established under the Act, if the alternate plan offers benefits to the employer's workers that are comparable to those offered by the insurance plan as it exists under the Act as of the date that the amendments to the Act come into force. To exercise the option, an employer is required to file a notice with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board containing the particulars specified in the regulations made under the Act.

As with most private member Bills, this proposed legislation was defeated after some debate. It is clear that the idea of opening the WSIB to competition has resonated with some. While research would suggest that competitive workers’ compensation systems are, on average, higher cost for employers, it is likely that the large unfunded liability in Ontario will keep this issue alive for some time to come.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ergonomic Considerations for Older Workers

The idea of fitting the job to the worker is not new...but the increasing numbers of older workers in the workforce requires a fresh look at workplace standards and design.

Older workers may have very different needs from their younger counterparts. Many tables that record body measurements and ratios are based on military populations and may not be representative of the working population in general or of a particular worksite with many older workers.

What sort of considerations should one make for older workers? In a recent presentation J.M. Haight offered the following advice:

Consider older workers limitation in workspace and task design:
· Improve illumination
· Reduce heavy lifts and elevated work
· Design smooth solid flooring
· Remove control panel and computer screen clutter
· Reduce noise levels
· Focus on error reduction tools such as three way communication
· Additional time spacing between task steps
· Increase decision making time
· Reduce necessary reaction time
· Understand accommodations being made
· Educate, Educate, Educate

The Australian Public Safety Commission produced a similar
checklist of strategies and activities for an aging workforce
(Australian Public Service Commission, 2003):

Improve work task design
· Promote employees’ control over their work depending on agency needs and employee preferences
· Reduce physical loads
· Ensure good visibility of task-related information
· Improve posture
· Set reasonable work rate standards, production targets or workloads

Improve job design and work organization
· Avoid monotony, short cycle times
· Improve work scheduling
· Allow flexibility in taking rest breaks
· Allow individuals time to adapt to new tasks
· Support flexible employment conditions

Improve the physical work environment
· Minimise glare
· Ensure good lighting levels
· Minimise noise levels
· Eliminate hazards that may cause slips, trips and falls
· Make allowances for working in heat and encourage sun-safe behaviour

Support and improve people’s performance capacities
· Develop best practice performance standards
· Improve training programs
· Develop and maintain support systems
· Improve employee morale and expertise

Interestingly, this resource follows each strategy with specific recommended activities and provides a small bibliographic reference section to support each recommendation.

Zurich, another large insurer, recently published an even more elaborate listing of practical steps (Zurich Services Corporation, 2008). The listing includes engineering and administrative solutions for physical, physiological and psychosocial changes.

With same level falls (slips, trips and falls) identified as a major source for injuries in older workers, the slips, trips and fall prevention program evaluated by Bell et al. (Bell, J. L., Collins, J. W., Wolf, L., Grnqvist, R., Chiou, S., Chang, W.-R., et al. Evaluation of a comprehensive slip, trip and fall prevention programme for hospital employees. Ergonomics , 51 (12), 1906-1925) is a good resource for ergonomic strategies that have collectively been validated in a healthcare setting. The main intervention strategy elements are:

· Keep floors clean and dry
· Prevent entry into areas that are contaminated
· Use slip-resistant shoes
· Keep walkways clear of objects and reduce clutter
· Provide adequate lighting in all work areas including outdoor stairwells and parking garages
· Secure loose cords, wires and tubing
· Eliminate outdoor surface irregularities
· Eliminate indoor surface irregularities
· Check stairs
· General awareness campaign

There are other resources like Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches is one such reference (Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, & Sharit, 2009). Another is “Extra-ordinary” Ergonomics: How to accommodate small and big persons, the disabled and elderly, expectant mothers and children (Kroemer, 2006) where Chapter 6 is specifically about designing for aging.

These general guidelines and resources are a start. For any particular jobsite, safely fitting the actual job tasks to the the workers who actually perform them deserves consideration.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ergonomics and Demographics

Last week I completed a graduate course on Ergonomics (OCCH 505b offered through the School of Environmental Health at the University of British Columbia). The class consisted of about a dozen students, mostly working towards a Master of Science degree in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. The instructor was a professional ergonomist with a great background in academic, regulatory and private practice areas. The content and discussions were a great way to spend three hours every Monday evening over the last three months.

The course content covered the range of topics you might expect and a few that might not immediately jump to mind. One area we discussed was how the changing demographics of society and the labour force will require ergonomic considerations for older workers.

Demographic changes are clearly having an impact in the labour force. The average age of workers in the labour force is rising. More people are deciding to participate in the labour force well beyond the age of 65. In the US, most of this population is opting for full time work—a clear shift from the trends we saw only a decade ago. Despite these trends, there was surprisingly little research-validated data on specific ergonomic recommendations for the older workforce.

There is no standard definition of what we mean by older workers. In some research, particularly in manufacturing and construction, age 40 or 45 is used to differentiate the older worker population. In other literature, workers over the age of 55, 64, or 67 may be used to define the older population.

The research lists changes that occur to our body and mind as we age. Not everyone ages at the same rate but many common changes are important to consider when designing or fitting the job to the worker:

  • · stiffness Increases
    · range of motion and flexibility decrease
    · Hearing declines particularly at upper frequencies
    · metabolism slows and weight gain often occurs
    · tire more easily and take longer to recover
    · eye movements may become impaired
    · colour perception may change
    · more light may be required for fine work tasks
    · floaters and veils can appear and persist in the field of vision

Not everything about aging is bad. Some things improve with age. These include verbal and general knowledge. Age is associated with increased happiness. A recent study found a positive association between age and safety perception. Older workers have the best perceptions on safety, highest job satisfaction levels, greatest compliance with safety procedures and recorded the lowest work-related accident/injury rates.

Some researchers and insurers are beginning to provide important information for the protection older workers. I’ll provide some resources in my next post