Monday, January 17, 2011

How does new safety technology protect workers?

Many of us use laptops and are familiar with the long power cords from the wall to the adapter and the cord from the adapter that eventually connects to the computer.  Some of us think about the tripping hazard but we are not always as careful as we ought to be about taping down the cord.  Most power cords will break apart from the adapter block—a feature that further reduces the consequences should someone trip over the cord.  Those with MacBooks have the added engineering protection of a magnetic breakaway power cord that further reduces the tripping hazard. 

A few days ago, I was sent a picture of a product that takes the idea of a breakaway cord even further.  The “safety socket” appears to be sold under both the Stanley and Westinghouse brands.  It takes the magnetic breakaway to the wall socket with a two-part assembly. 

This sort of technology is not rocket science and it doesn’t replace proper taping of cords or other procedures but it can make a difference—if it is used.   Some of you will also be familiar with a table saw that stops and retracts instantly if it senses the blade is touching flesh .  This technology does not replace the need for saws to have guards.  Proper adherence to safe work procedures does effectively reduce the risk of injury.  So, what does a $20 breakaway socket or a $70 brake cartridge (and the marginal extra cost at purchase) in a table saw add to the safety equation?

To answer this question, you need to remember that most work activities carry risks.  Safety is about reducing or eliminating the active risks and effectively managing the residual risks.  We manage the residual risks by putting in place barriers, safeguards and defenses.  Knowledge is one of the best defenses so training is one way we can reduce risk.  Safe work procedures, personal protective equipment, and effective supervision further reduce the risk of the inherent danger of a cut from a saw blade or a fall injury because of a trip over a power cord. 

James Reason, an expert in human factors that lead to injury, speaks in terms of barriers and holes that protect workers from injury.  In his "Swiss cheese" model, the inherent danger in a work situation can only harm a worker if there is a hole in each of the defenses, barriers, or safeguards, AND these holes align.   

In my own view, I think of these holes as active or latent defects in the barriers, safeguards, and defenses that protect the worker from harm.  The effect of improved supervision, better training, more complete adherence to safe work procedures is the reduction of the number and size of the defects in the barriers and safeguards that protect workers.  And that is effectively what the design solutions the breakaway power cord and the sawstop device provide.  These are examples that make the barriers and safeguards more complete, which further lessen the opportunity for the inherent risk of tripping or being cut by a spinning saw blade. 

This blog is not intended as an endorsement of these products.  I think, however, they are good illustrations of how technology and good design can contribute to safer work environments by reducing the size and number of holes in the barriers, safeguards, and defences that can protect workers from harm. 

What does the Ontario Expert Panel mean for OH&S?

A year ago, four workers died in Ontario on Christmas eve.  The tragedy triggered the government to set up an Expert Panel on Occupational Health and Safety.  Chaired by the well-respected Tony Dean and supported by representatives from Labour and Employers as well as other academics (including H. Allen Hunt who recently completed a reappraisal of WorkSafeBC’s system), the Panel’s report was released December 16, 2010.  You can review the entire report online or download it from the following link:

As widely anticipated, the report recommends bringing all workplace prevention and enforcement activities under one Chief Prevention Executive in the Ministry of Labour.  This effectively means the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) will transfer its prevention programs and services to the new body within the Ministry. 

There are forty-six recommendations in all.  The final one lists the recommendations the Panel believes should be acted upon first:

1.       A new prevention organization should be created within the Ministry of Labour. The new organization would be headed by a Chief Prevention Executive, and would feature a multi stakeholder Prevention Council; each would have specific powers explicitly defined in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. (Recommendation 1)

2.       The Ministry of Labour should work with the new prevention organization to create a health and safety poster that explains the key rights and responsibilities of the workplace parties, including how to obtain additional health and safety information and how to contact a Ministry of Labour inspector. It should be mandatory to post this in the workplace. (Recommendation 10)

3.       The Ministry of Labour should create a mandatory requirement for training of Health and Safety Representatives. (Recommendation 13)

4.       The Ministry of Labour should require mandatory health and safety awareness training for all workers. (Recommendation 14)

5.       The Ministry of Labour should require mandatory health and safety awareness training for all supervisors who are responsible for frontline workers. (Recommendation 15)

6.       The Ministry of Labour and new prevention organization should develop mandatory entry-level training for construction workers as a priority and consult with stakeholders to determine other sectors that should be subject to mandatory training for workers. (Recommendation 16)

7.       The Ministry of Labour and new prevention organization should develop mandatory fall protection training for workers working at heights as a priority and consult with stakeholders to determine additional high-hazard activities that should be subject to mandatory training for workers. (Recommendation 17)

8.       The Minister of Labour should appoint a committee under Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide advice on matters related to the occupational health and safety of vulnerable workers. (Recommendation 29)

9.       The Ministry of Labour and the Ontario Labour Relations Board should work together to develop a process to expedite the resolution of reprisal complaints under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. (Recommendation 33)

10.   A worker or employer involved in a reprisal complaint should have access to information and support from an independent, third-party organization, such as the Office of the Worker Adviser or Office of the Employer Adviser. 

11.   The Minister of Labour should create a small business Section 21 committee and appoint members that can represent the needs and interests of employers and workers in small businesses. (Recommendation 36)

The Panel reflected a concern over the reliability and validity of data, noting, “This is evident in fatality statistics, where WSIB and MOL figures differ because they relate to different populations of workers, due to differences in legislative coverage. Data on non-fatal lost-time injuries may be even less reliable as an indicator, due to the potential for misrepresentation of the actual incident through claims management.” 

This difference in mandate affects more than data.  It can impact priorities, policies, and strategies.  If the population insured for workers’ compensation is essentially the same population covered by the prevention mandate, common systems make sense.  Where there is a substantial difference in the workers’ compensation and prevention mandates, there are likely to be differences in what and how data are counted.  This is particularly evident in Ontario where the Occupational Safety and Health law and policy applies to virtually every workplace but WSIB covers only 70% of the employed labour force.  This is vastly different from BC where WorkSafeBC covers about 94% of the employed labour force. 

The policy implications of these top items will cause all jurisdictions to review their own structures and policies.  Fostering increased awareness of worker rights, supervisor responsibility, fall protection and small business should be on everyone’s list.  The recommendations, however, are context-specific.  What is right for Ontario may or may not have any application outside Ontario.  That said, I believe the recommendations of the Ontario expert panel will cause every OH&S focused organization to review its priorities.