OHS Canada Magazine

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Beyond the Comfort Zone


I recently attended a conference in Atlanta, and one of the sessions talked about how cyber risks have become an issue that concerns not only the IT department, but also safety professionals. The speakers pointed out that cyber attacks no longer involve merely the breach of information; the convergence of digital and physical threats has made cyber attacks squarely a workplace-safety issue.

Consider hackers who manipulate the operations of a nuclear power plant or an oil and gas installation, which can threaten the safety of workers and the facility’s surrounding inhabitants.

Safety professionals today increasingly face an uncertain environment that constantly throws up new challenges with little or no precedence. A large part of that stems from the changing nature of the workplace — a phenomenon on which the Ontario Ministry of Labour is conducting a review. The Ministry cited globalization, technological change, growing workplace diversity and the rise of non-standard employment as among the factors behind the metamorphosing workplace.

The rise of temporary work, subcontracting and self-employment weaken the regulatory grip on workplace safety by making it harder for employers to implement safety practices — either due to the transience and mobility of the workforce or uncertainty over employers’ legal obligations — and for authorities to monitor the safety of these workers who lie in the penumbra of a conventional employment relationship. Temporary migrant workers and contractual work arrangements in the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors are prime examples.

Technology, which has always had a democratization effect by lowering the entry barrier, has given rise to new business models like Uber and Airbnb that contribute to altering the dynamics of the traditional employer-employee relationship. For Uber drivers, anyone who owns a vehicle can pick up fares through apps for iPhone and Android devices, while property owners can turn their private residences into standalone hotels simply by listing photos of their abodes on the Airbnb website.

While Uber professes to be a technology platform and Airbnb positions itself as an online rental marketplace, Uber and Airbnb are essentially a taxi-service provider and multi-hotel operator respectively. But unlike their traditional business counterparts, which are subject to health and safety laws, workplaces built on technological platforms have largely evaded the oh&s regulatory framework.

Add to that the spillover effect of a global economy, in which developments in another country can have safety repercussions in our backyard. A case in point is when Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders expressed his concern for the safety of his officers in July, following the violent incidents against police officers in the United States. As well, an epidemic raging in other parts of the world — think SARS and the more recent Zika virus — can pose dangers to frontline workers, such as those in the healthcare and air-transportation industries.

Preparedness will have to feature more prominently in safety planning if we want to be able to respond to challenges in all its variegated forms more nimbly moving forward. Navigating an evolving safety landscape can be unnerving, but it also offers us the opportunity to rethink and redefine safety in ways that we have not thought about before.

Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.