The president of the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health (IWH) says it’s time for Ontario to redouble its efforts to ensure the province’s small employers conduct business in healthy and safe environments.
Too many small workplaces do not have adequate occupational health and safety (OHS) tools available to keep their workers safe, asserts the IWH’s Dr. Cameron Mustard.
“Most of the very large employers are not where the problem is,” said Mustard recently. “It’s not that small businesses are a problem, but there are so many, and there are some gaps in competencies of small business.”
The IWH’s spring newsletter reviewed three studies from the past four years documenting the “unique challenges” faced by small employers. One study from the IWH reported that the 2017 traumatic injury lost-time claim rate at the smallest firms was more than twice as high as at larger firms — 10.3 per 1,000 full-time employees at firms with fewer than five workers, versus 4.1 at firms with 50-plus workers.
Another study from 2017 co-authored by Mustard found that among three different types of OHS vulnerabilities, small-firm workers reported higher vulnerability due to inadequate policies and procedures than those at larger firms (34 per cent versus 18 per cent).
Mustard explained the IWH chose to highlight the three studies even though they were somewhat “date-stamped” because small business OHS practices from three or four years back are very likely the same today; because there is growing recognition that small business needs for OHS supports are different from larger employers; and simply because of the vast preponderance of small businesses in Ontario compared to large businesses.
Mustard’s study suggested the greater injury risk for small business “may be eliminated by focusing on ensuring that protective measures — especially workplace OHS policies and procedures — are adequate,” the newsletter stated.
Explained Mustard, “It is among the smaller employers where there are an important number of smaller players who don’t quite recognize, first of all, the nature of the hazards that their employees are exposed to, and haven’t had the opportunity to build up the capacity to manage and control those hazards.”
Mustard said the issue is the capacity challenge faced by small businesses. The OHS responsibility falls to the owner, manager or office administrator to ensure that the company is at least compliant with regulatory standards.
“It’s not a simple job.”
Small construction employers face the same OHS challenges as those in other sectors, Mustard said, but unlike in other sectors where their service organizations do not make OHS a top priority, construction has associations such as the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) and unions that consider health and safety a primary focus.
This is in part because construction has more injuries than other industries and the consequences are more severe.
That feeds into the motivation of the sector to focus on OHS more than other sectors, Mustard said.
Very small firms aim to create a “family” environment and in a small construction firm, there is a more heightened fear of a debilitating incident or death to one of the “family” members.
“You don’t want these tragic events to occur but I think in the course of work we’ve done at the Institute for Work & Health, we’ve been interested at times in documenting the story in an organization that changes from struggling to protect the health of workers to be high performing,” he said.
As Ontario grapples with helping small business take the next step on OHS, Mustard said it is the stakeholder associations such as the OGCA that should be enlisted.
“It may be that these kinds of intermediaries can be a mechanism by which smaller businesses which had this challenge, capacity and resources, might be able to get the kind of advice they’re looking for. It’s an idea that’s been talked about.”
Other steps Mustard identified to motivate change in small business culture is expanding the role of Ministry of Labour inspectors and encouraging firms to hire the right person.
“Sometimes it’s just ending up hiring a person who’s got a passion for it.”
Reform on the small business OHS file could come very soon, Mustard noted. He has been consulted by the provincial government as it prepares a new strategic OHS plan for the next five years and he has learned that improvements at the small business level will be one of four pillars the reforms will focus on.
“If the Government of Ontario would focus attention on resources, capacity and supporting the strengthening of competencies among small businesses, that’s a good thing. Are they going to do it? I think they are.”
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