By Ron Corbeil
Effective joint health and safety committees save lives
By Ron Corbeil
As workplace safety issues have grown more complex, joint health and safety committees (JHSC) can be an effective means of controlling hazards. But a JHSC will only be effective if it is given the tools to succeed. Employers should be reviewing the JHSC findings in the same way as they would review profits, quality control or down time.
In response to the three-week wildcat strike by about 1,000 steelworkers in 1974 at Elliot Lake’s Denison uranium mine, the Government of Ontario appointed a Royal Commission headed by James Ham to review mine safety. The Ham Commission concluded that Ontario’s responsibility system was deficient in two ways. Divided jurisdictions made it difficult to determine who was responsible and, as the commission put it, “the worker as an individual, and workers collectively, have been denied effective participation in tackling these problems; thus the essential principles of openness and natural justice have not received adequate expression.”
The Ham Commission recommendations resulted in the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1979, the provincial law governing health and safety in the workplace, and the internal responsibility system, which has essentially been the blue print for occupational health and safety across Canada.
Ham set out three principles as the defining characteristics of the internal responsibility system.
- Implementation of JHSCs with the power to inspect, investigate and, with less clarity, the power to make decisions respecting health and safety;
- An individual’s right to refuse unsafe work;
- The right to be informed of substances used in the workplace which could be harmful.
Most legal regimes in Canada prescribe to the above three rights through their occupational health and safety acts and regulations, yet they are not always adhered to or enforced by the regulators.
Workers often complain that their JHSC is under-utilized. Common complaints include: not being involved in investigations, not getting the legislated training, not having the required number of worker representatives or even meeting at all (in some cases, even getting workers to sit as JHSC members can be difficult). To be respected and valued in the workplace, JHSCs must not only investigate incidents (including near misses), they must also put a heavy emphasis on prevention. The committee must also be properly trained and given the time to conduct effective job hazard analysis programs.
I’ve observed many examples of excellent JHSCs where labour and management work well together to identify and eliminate hazards. These committees generally have clear objectives in mind, extensive training (including management members who are often overlooked), are proactive versus reactive, and engage the workforce to help identify and correct hazards. Achieving more than legal compliance can bring about a sustainable improvement to the health and safety of workplaces.
Identifying the hazards and controlling them (using the hierarchy of control) is key to ensuring there won’t be any incidents.
The first level of control is to eliminate the hazard wherever possible. If this is not possible, the hazard should be substituted with a non-hazardous substance or procedure.
If this is not possible, the hazard should be reduced through an engineering control (for example, guarding). If this is not possible, an administrative control, such as training, should be provided. Lastly, if the superior controls are not effective, personal protective equipment should be utilized.
We have unfortunately seen tragic consequences when the proper controls have not been utilized due to the perceived costs involved. However, using superior controls will provide the most protection and, in most cases, be the most cost-effective.
To ensure your JHSC is relevant in today’s workplace, aim for more than legal compliance. When JHSCs develop clear goals, proactive and positive prevention programs, engage employees and develop a track record of bringing about real improvements in the workplace’s health and safety, a reduction in injury and illness will undoubtedly follow.
Ron Corbeil is the United Steelworkers District 3 health, safety & environment coordinator, which encompasses the four western provinces and the northern territories. Ron is based in Burnaby, B.C.