I have worked as a health & safety professional for the last 15 years. Compared to some people, this is not a long time. I met my mentor when I first started, and that was after he retired as a Ministry of Labour Inspector. At 77, I think he is now ready to retire.
But when you look at the changes to the Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act, we have come a long way. Over the last 15 years, I have seen changes to the legislation regarding confined space requirements, noise levels, fall protection training, worker and supervisor safety awareness training, workplace violence & harassment, etc.
I made a comment about this just a couple weeks ago while running through orientation for new workers to site.
We are now telling workers that workplace violence and harassment is a zero-tolerance offense and you will be removed from site. As well, we are telling construction workers that it is okay to be vulnerable and talk about mental health issues.
If you live in Southern Ontario, or beyond, you have likely heard about an incident that occurred in Ajax a couple weeks ago. Two workers were injured and two others were killed when the trench they were working in collapsed.
As a member of the public, I feel sympathy for the workers who were there and their families for what they lost.
As safety professionals, we can all agree that this never should have happened. There are enough control measures that can be put into place to prevent something like this from happening. Unfortunately, we will never really know what truly happened.
As someone who struggles with mental health, and talks about mental health issues in the workplace, I think about the long-last effect this will have on the workers and their families.
If anyone of those workers were already struggling with mental health issues, whether it was depression, anxiety, addictions or PTSD, or some other diagnosis, an incident like this could really put them at a precipice. How many of these workers will ever enter a trench again, let alone be able to work in construction, or be able to work at all, because of what they witnessed?
I would hope that each and every one of those people on site that day, and even those in the rest of the company, and their families, are given the opportunity to work with grief counsellors to learn how to deal with this loss in a healthy way. I pray for recovery for all of them.
Even with all the changes to the Ontario legislation, fatalities are still happening. Workers are getting injured every day. We talk about the physical aspects of the injury. WSIB looks at the physical healing and a workers functional ability to work. But are we looking at the mental aspect of it?
If an injured worker is unable to do their job because of a physical impairment, do we talk about the potential of mental health issues and how that can impact their physical healing?
For so many people, who we are is very much tied to what we do. We identify ourselves as a wife, husband, parent, sibling, and whatever our job title is. When we meet new people, while getting to know them, one of the first questions we ask, “What do you do?”
If someone suddenly finds themself in a position where they are unable to do their job for an extended length of time, they are likely to start questioning who they are. If you have ever been laid off for any extended period (think 2008 recession), or more recently, during COVID when people were unable to work, think of the impact that had on you.
Employers, unions and WCB organizations need to make sure workers have the right resources available to them and their families who have be impacted, either directly or indirectly, by a workplace injury or fatality. Workers need to not be afraid, and even be encouraged, to ask for help if that time was to ever come.
Vulnerability is a strength and we need to be an example of that in the workplace. And perhaps talking about the physical and mental challenges that occur after a workplace incident may remind workers to not be as complacent.