The Weakest Links
By Carmelle Wolfson
On June 16, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL) started public consultations on how the Labour Relations Act, 1995 and the Employment Standards Act, 2000 could be amended to keep pace with the changing needs of workers and employers in the modern workplace. Consultations in the Greater Toronto Area have continued throughout the summer and examined workplace trends that include the increase in non-standard working relationships and the effects of globalization and accelerating technological change.
According to a statement issued by the MOL on May 14, non-standard employment, which includes involuntary part-time jobs, temporary work, self-employment and multiple job holders, has grown almost twice as quickly as standard employment since 1997. Private-sector services account for more than half of all employment in Ontario.
While the term “vulnerability” is increasingly used in the province’s workplaces in general, there was no discussion of what factors led to this increased ‘vulnerability’ or if these groups were vulnerable in similar ways, says Peter Smith, Ph.D., a scientist with the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto. “The labelling of groups in this way can have the unintended consequence of making the focus about the individual, rather than the working conditions that lead to this increased risk.”
To address this issue, Dr. Smith has come up with a definition of what constitutes workplace vulnerability and devised a set of questions that can measure changes in worker vulnerability over time. “We define oh&s vulnerability as exposure to workplace hazards, in combination with inadequate workplace policies and procedures, low oh&s awareness and/or a workplace culture that discourages workers’ participation in injury prevention,” he says.
At the IWH plenary on January 20, Dr. Smith shared the preliminary findings from a survey capturing different dimensions of workplace vulnerability across a sample of workers in Ontario and British Columbia. With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Smith and his team surveyed more than 1,800 workers in the two provinces from May to June 2014. The 29-item questionnaire covered four areas: the hazards to which respondents were exposed; oh&s policies and procedures in place at their workplaces; respondents’ levels of workplace-safety awareness; and how empowered they felt while participating in injury prevention.
“I think labelling any group, such as young workers, as vulnerable workers is problematic, as it doesn’t really tell you anything about why these workers are vulnerable,” Dr. Smith says. When young workers were first identified as a vulnerable group, people thought that it meant something unique about young workers that led to this increased risk of injury, he explains. But research later showed that this was not the case.
“Measuring factors that place workers at increased risk of injury is a more proactive approach to injury prevention than waiting for injuries to occur and then taking action,“ Dr. Smith says. “Using this measure, we can learn more about the patterns of different types of vulnerability across the labour market, which can inform the development of more appropriately tailored primary-prevention interventions.”
Work in Progress
Protecting vulnerable workers was a priority in Ontario as far back as 2012, when the MOL established the Vulnerable Workers Task Group. Over the last few years, the provincial government has introduced legislation aimed at strengthening protections for vulnerable workers through the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act. Five vulnerable-worker inspection blitzes were conducted, and mandatory health and safety awareness training was introduced.
More recently, the ministry announced funding towards research projects aimed at improving the safety of vulnerable workers on June 1. Among the projects getting funding is an IWH study that is receiving a $263,994 grant to evaluate the effects of the province’s mandatory awareness training program, introduced last July.
Worker vulnerabilities often stem from socioeconomic circumstances, says Avvy Go, director of the Metro Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which serves low-income immigrant populations in Toronto. “I would define vulnerable workers as workers who work in precarious job situations where there is no job security and very little rights protection,” Go says. “Almost all of them are people of colour, immigrants. For many of them, English is not their first language.”
According to the Public Services Health and Safety Association in Toronto, vulnerable workers have greater exposure than most to injury and illness, due to their lack of experience, reluctance to ask questions, communication barriers and type of work. “So it is the legal framework, the lack of protection in the labour environment, plus the socio-economic disadvantages faced by these groups,” Go sums up.
While Dr. Smith says the questionnaire he devised demonstrates good variability and strong factorial validity, future studies should look at harder-to-reach samples, such as recent immigrants and short-tenure employees. “By identifying the specific reasons for increased vulnerability, primary-prevention activities can be more targeted and effective.”
Carmelle Wolfson is former assistant editor of OHS Canada.