Changing workplace safety culture in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
By Alexandra Skinner
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) is a community made up of people from all walks of life. It is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, and is home to a myriad of businesses and organizations.
Over the years, the community has struggled with complex social issues and has shown strength and resiliency in trying to address them. As a result, DTES employers include health care and social services providers who provide housing supports and deliver programs for low-income residents, people who use substances, and those with mental health challenges, or with concurrent disorders.
But this is not a problem unique to one neighbourhood in Canada — many of the challenges experienced by workers and employers on the DTES of Vancouver are seen nationwide, in other communities, and in workplaces with diverse and complex populations.
WorkSafeBC: Unique approaches to unique challenges
WorkSafeBC has dedicated prevention officers who ensure a regular presence in the DTES by engaging with workers and employers to raise awareness and understanding about healthy and safe workplaces.
“Through consultation, education, and enforcement, we’ve developed relationships with workers and employers in the DTES community,” says Jacqueline Holmes, Manager of Prevention Field Services at WorkSafeBC. “A key role for our officers is to help employers understand their legal obligations to protect the health and safety of their workers.”
As part of WorkSafeBC’s Health Care and Social Services High Risk Strategy, prevention efforts in the Downtown Eastside are focused on reducing the risk of workplace violence and related injuries. Occupational hygiene issues are also at the forefront of efforts in the community, as businesses must consider exposure to infectious diseases, illicit substances, and other hygiene concerns that require unique approaches from both employers, and prevention officers.
“The Downtown Eastside has unique challenges when it comes to workplace health and safety,” says Holmes. “It’s important that prevention officers conduct objective and respectful inspections when working with this diverse community.”
When working in the DTES, WorkSafeBC prevention officers work with employers to ensure:
- Risk of injury to workers is minimized through procedures, instruction and workplace arrangements (e.g., security, hours of operation, barriers, access/egress, safe areas, etc.).
- Communication systems are in place for reporting and addressing workplace hazards.
- Joint health and safety committees are in place and operational, if required by legislation.
- Employers develop and implement safe work procedures for violence prevention, working alone, and the risk of exposure to needles and hazardous substances (e.g., asbestos, mould, and lead).
- Workers have access to personal protective equipment— such as masks and gloves.
Employers are responsible for keeping workers safe from violence and other risks. “When working with the DTES community, the risk of violence can never completely be eliminated, however, employers must implement controls that reduce the risk to workers,” says Holmes.
These controls include developing and implementing safe work procedures, posting signage with expectations for respectful behaviours, installing physical barriers and alarms, and use of personal protective devices.
Workers also have a responsibility to follow their employer’s safe work procedures so that they and their coworkers remain safe.
“Workers in the DTES can sometimes tolerate or feel they must tolerate behaviours or issues that may affect their safety in the workplace, so it’s important to remind them that violence, whether physical or verbal, must not be tolerated and must be reported to their supervisor,” says Holmes. “Having regular enforcement and a supportive presence in the DTES has opened the door to honest and frank conversations with workers and employers about the safety of their workplace.”
Holmes adds that every worker has a right to a safe workplace and has a responsibility to report their safety concerns to their supervisor. Employers also have a responsibility to investigate safety concerns and take corrective action.
Adapting to the needs of the community
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of adapting safety plans to the work environment. As the DTES landscape evolves, employers need to be situationally aware, and responsive to changes in the neighbourhood.
“COVID-19 has been challenging for everyone, including those living and working in the Downtown Eastside,” says Holmes. “But the pandemic also raised awareness about the importance of assessing risk and implementing controls to reduce those risks. We’d like to build on this heightened awareness of health and safety in the community.”
Making a difference
While changing a workplace safety culture takes time, by working with employers and workers, WorkSafeBC prevention officers have observed a positive shift in workplace safety culture in the DTES.
“It’s rewarding to see that by providing employers with ongoing support, information and resources, employers and workers are becoming more aware of how to work safely,” Holmes says.
WorkSafeBC’s prevention line is available to workers and employers, and connects callers with prevention officers, who provide education and consultation around health and safety questions or concerns. The Prevention Information Line is open 24/7 for worksite emergencies.