Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why should we care about OH&S for Migrant Workers in China?

Migrant labour, temporary foreign workers and in-country migration of workers are becoming more common to many economies. While the “newness” of a worker to any jobsite increases the risk of injury [see Institute for Work and Health, “Newness” and the risk of occupational injury, Issue Briefings, May 2009], a worker in any of these categories faces greater risk if language, education, training, experience are at the low end of the spectrum.

I was in Chongqing China last week as a technical advisor to a project reducing risks to workers. The Canada-China Migrant Labour Occupational Health and Safety project seeks to increase health and safety among the 1.3 million migrant workers concentrated in the coal mining, construction and textile industries in the Chongqing municipality—an administrative jurisdiction serving a population of about 33 million.

Whatever your political views, the simple reality of China’s modernization coupled with the demographic, economic and environmental realities of a billion-plus people create significant challenges. Whether you are in China, Canada or California, you can’t sustain economic growth in sectors like construction without an adequate, safe and healthy labour force. Increasingly, that labour force demand cannot be met through natural population growth and traditional educational streams. For Canada, this means a growing reliance on temporary foreign workers and immigration to meet labour requirements; for places like Chongqing, it’s a matter of temporarily filling demand through migrant labour.

WorkSafeBC’s contribution of training materials, videos and expertise is making a difference. We produce materials for our multicultural labour force in British Columbia so the marginal cost of sending a Chinese translation of a safety brochure in a pdf file or a subtitled two-minute instructional video clip attached to an email is insignificant. The impact on the lives of migrant workers in China (and elsewhere in the world) can be life changing for the better.

At a symposium I attended in Chongqing, I heard first hand (through an interpreter) from migrant workers how many of the safety precautions, work procedures and protective equipment we take for granted are just being implemented in the project’s demonstration sites. More importantly, I heard these worker representatives—not just officials—speak proudly of their advancements in occupational health and safety.

In one of the most humbling moments, I was told how more than 2 million migrant and resident workers in Chongqing have heard about WorkSafeBC and benefitted directly from the materials we produced. That number is almost equivalent to the total labour force in British Columbia.

What happens in China is no longer something that simply occurs far off on the other side of the world. In a global economy, we are all linked; the health and safety of workers who are part of that world-wide supply chain ought to be a concern for all of us. In Chongqing, we drove in German cars, used Dutch translating devices, and watched American software present Canadian knowledge through Japanese projectors.

In a world where there are growing concerns about an “averaging down” of worker health and safety, WorkSafeBC is proudly playing its part in raising OH&S standards for workers in B.C. and elsewhere in our shrinking and interdependent world.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Have Occupational Injury Rates Stopped Falling?

For most of the last twenty years, we have seen time-loss injury rates decline across a broad spectrum of industries and in jurisdictions around the world. This has been welcome news on all fronts. The human loss and suffering avoided alone is one thing, and the financial costs are yet another reason for celebrating this remarkable improvement.

On the downside, the rate of decline has slowed and may have actually begun to climb. NCCI reports injury frequency has risen for the first time since 1997. In fact, the decline has been going on for even longer than that. If you discount two minor blips in 1997 and 1994, injury rates have declined for 18 of the last 20 years in the study (1991-2009).

Recent data shows 2010 and 2011 have seen increases in overall injury rates. One interesting point made by the analysis is the impact of the length in hours of the work week. Few systems actually measure hours of exposure to work (Washington State being the only North American workers’ comp system I know of), but the NCCI points out that fewer hours of exposure per week (month, quarter, twelve-month moving average) will likely mean fewer injuries if the denominator is week, month or year. As weekly hours increase, so will injuries.

Another factor relates to claim behaviour. The report suggests:
•Some insurance experts have suggested that workers, fearful of losing their jobs, may have postponed filing workers compensation claims, but now appear less hesitant to file claims as the economy has shown signs of modest improvement. While the extent to which this phenomenon occurred is unclear, it may have contributed to the observed increase in claim frequency in 2010.

•There is evidence of an influx of small lost-time claims in 2010, which may have been medical-only claims in previous years. A lack of available light duty jobs for injured workers to return to might have contributed.

Are injury rates declining elsewhere? At WorkSafeBC and other Canadian workers’ compensation systems, we have heard reports of the same sort of flattening of the injury rate. This chart shows some selected provinces’ data up to 2009 and the generally falling injury rates. Since then, we have seen a flattening out of the injury frequency and some evidence of an uptick.

Is this something to worry about? I think so. No injury is acceptable and the only acceptable injury rate is zero: that has to remain the target. I believe we are making progress toward that end. I also believe we have harvested much of the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” We have taken a bit of free ride on technology as well, (you get few trips and falls over power cords when you are using cordless devices). New designs and innovations have further reduced injury (as you will see in the Saw Stop video). We are even beginning to use technology to organize important research, and to deliver key messages to where they are needed, when they are needed (see the Joint Prevention of Workplace Violence: Creating an Innovative Web-based Tool report, and Prevention of Violence website).

Yes, we have made progress but fundamental change takes time. The next step towards a zero injury rate means fundamental changes in a societal shift in beliefs and attitudes. Until we in the workers’ compensation industry begin to believe that work-related injuries are not inevitable, we have little hope of achieving that fundamental societal change.