Workplace safety in the age of coronavirus comes down to communication, adequate resources and cash

Working With Risk feature by Stephen Whitworth

It’s interesting writing about workplace safety when Saskatchewan isn’t even two months into a global pandemic that’s transforming our understanding of the province, nation and society we live in. Workplace safety is a damned important topic in a normal year, but now? Suddenly we’ve got to talk about face masks, remote work and social distancing on the job.

The impetus for this Prairie Dog/Planet S feature was the Canadian Labour Congress’ annual April 28 National Day Of Mourning, which honours workers killed by their jobs, and North American Occupational Health and Safety (NAOSH) week, which runs May 3–9. But this year every fact, opinion and anecdote is coloured by an unprecedented situation that, for most of us, impacts every waking moment of every day.

Strange days at the office, for everyone.

Still, life marches on, and despite the loss of over 20,000 jobs since Saskatchewan collectively plunged into this delightful coronavirus quarantine, more than half a million Sask. residents are still (more or less) employed. Some love their jobs. Some hate ’em. Probably most think they’re usually not too terrible — a sometimes interesting necessary evil that puts food in the fridge and keeps the lights on.

One thing few think about is the fact a job can injure you. Or maim you. Or even kill you.

Last year, there were 36 workplace deaths in Saskatchewan. Thirty-six: an average of three every month. On Tuesday April 28, Saskatchewan flags flew at half-mast to mourn its dead workers. The day before, a 74-year-old man died in what CTV News called a “workplace incident”.

In fact, workplace fatalities are not rare events — the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety reports 1,027 workplace fatalities in 2018; another 951 Canadian workers lost their lives the year before.

That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of workplace injuries.

Clearly, the safety of Canadian jobs as a whole leaves something to be desired. But what can be done? Can anything be done? Especially in this Age of Plague?

I spoke with two Saskatchewan union presidents on this year’s National Day of Mourning to find out.

Grey Days

“I’m in Regina and I’m seeing some pretty ugly weather, which kind of matches my mood,” said Service Employees International Union-West president Barbara Cape.

“This is an incredibly powerful day for workers across every sector but right now in the midst of a pandemic, I’m talking with members on the front lines in health care, group homes and personal care homes, and I’m really struck by their ability to park their anxiety and just get out there and go to work in some pretty uncertain times,” says Cape. “I’m very grateful I get to work with these members and am very aware of the dangers they’re facing every day.”

How safe are Saskatchewan workers?

“Safety is expensive, continues Cape. “Safety takes time, as well. People look for quick and easy answers to keep health care running or group homes running or education running, and what I’m seeing is a rise of safety issues. I am also seeing a rise in mental health impacts, which is quite frankly across the board in every sector SEIU-West represents people.

Saskatchewan Government Employees Union president Bob Bymoen says COVID-19 is the biggest workplace safety issue he’s dealing with right now, and he echoes Cape’s concern about workplace stress.

“With the pandemic, there’s lots of concerns coming into the workplace,” says Bymoen. “The members we’re dealing with, initially it was people with more risk: the older workers, those with breathing or heart conditions, that kind of stuff. They knew they had to isolate, and I think workplaces overall were pretty supportive of that.

“But as people watched the news and saw what’s going on in other jurisdictions, it’s been a game-changer. How do you communicate? How do you share paper or the tools of your job? Workspaces? Everything that was normal a few months ago is out the window, and that change itself is hard on people.

“As humans, we’re used to a certain amount of change but we can only change so fast before it starts to affect our mental health.

Another thing that affects mental health: employers who cut corners.

“People are short-staffed and they’re wondering whether they’re providing the best care they’re able to, whether it’s in education or group homes or the retirement home sector,” says Cape. “Are they able to do the work that they know they’re able to do because they’re short-staffed? And in our particular situation in SEIU-West, we’ve been without a collective agreement for three years now, and that adds a level of stress and anxiety to frontline workers every single day.”

And every ounce of stress you pile on workers can impact how well they do their job.

“When you short-staff or understaff, things are overlooked and mistakes are made,” Cape says. “It’s an inevitability because humans are humans. We’re not robots. So there’s risk for the worker, but there’s also a danger to the people they’re providing service to, and that’s something that can’t be dismissed.

Besides health workers, SEIU-West also represents educational workers including educational assistants, admin assistants and library techs, as well as bus drivers and maintenance staff in three school divisions.

Cape says the educational sector also faces rising worker stress.

“Because Saskatchewan had such a massive burst of population growth, we saw quite the influx of folks from outside of Canada and they became new Canadians,” says Cape. “But they need additional support, with language comprehension and skills training in another language. That has increased pressure across the whole education sector — let alone the fact that classroom sizes are absolutely bursting at the seams because we’re not building a ton of new schools that take into account that growing population.

“When the pressures on the system meet limited resources and staff, things start to get a little hairy,” Cape says. “We’ve had conversations with our education assistants about the changing face of the classroom. It’s not just new Canadians, it’s learning abilities that are different or physical abilities that are different.

“I’ve had conversations about growing violence in the classroom. Everyone on the classroom team is facing this new reality.”

SGEU represents public employees and the union’s members include correctional institution workers, who arguably have one of the province’s more adventurous jobs these days.

While an imaginative reader could conjure all manner of job risks corrections officers might face, the biggest right now, says Bymoen, all come from the coronavirus.

“When the unions ask for more personal protective equipment in the workplace, it’s because our members are calling for that,” says Bymoen.

“I remember when the first COVID-19 case happened in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre,” he says. “Workers there wanted to know how they could protect their families, neighbours and community knowing they were working in an infectious environment.

“Their needs are similar to everybody else’s but harder to achieve,” says Bymoen. “How do you achieve social distancing when you’re working in an institutional environment? How do you do searches of people or cells? It’s virtually impossible. They’re working through these issues but what they’re asking from their employer is to be completely transparent about what’s going on in that workplace.

Communication, it seems, might be the best cure for workplace risks. Both Bymoen and Cape say occupational health and safety committees need to be in every workplace.

“One thing this COVID has done is that everybody’s got the same challenge in front of them now,” says Bymoen. “Whether it’s union or management, everyone wants to stay safe and protect the community. But working with the OHAS committees is paramount.”

Cape suggests taking the communication one step further.

“If governments called a round table, that would draw people to the table,” she says. “There would be some ‘gravitas’ because it would show that governments want to help implement solutions.

“It can’t just be us all sitting around a table having a cup of coffee and bitching at each other,” Cape says. “It has to be a solution-driven environment based on the best evidence, and not just cherry-picking the evidence we want to make our case but the best evidence that’s going to make a workplace safer.

“And sometimes, that costs money, and sometimes — maybe most of the time — that is the barrier to getting things safer.”