SAFE Work Manitoba is embarking on an ambitious five-year strategy to target one of the biggest problems facing workers and the construction industry – disease and illness.
According to SAFE Work, from 2000 to 2015, over 200 people died from cancer, lung diseases and other illnesses because they were exposed to harmful substances in their workplaces.
The majority of deaths could be traced back many years to asbestos or exposure to other toxic gases or dusts.
"Half of the fatalities related to work in Manitoba are related to disease," said Jamie Hall, COO for SAFE Work Manitoba. "Workers contract these things years after work has concluded. They are often forgotten in a lot of ways. We wanted to have a strategy focused on occupational disease."
Other non-fatal illnesses that workers can suffer from for decades after exposure to hazards include respiratory issues, skin disorders and hearing loss.
A major focus of the five-year strategy will be compiling comprehensive data to shed light on how often workers are being exposed to harmful substances in the workplace. This includes monitoring exposure levels across a number of different workplaces and industries over an extended period of time.
"The traditional approach that an employer would use is to look at their specific workplace," said Hall. "That ends up being good just for that one employer at that one time. It isn't a good inventory about situations employers and employees should be concerned about. By providing some industry-wide or task wide information, we would make it easier for employers and employees to take action."
SAFE Work Manitoba worked with an advisory group to develop the Occupational Disease and Illness Prevention Strategy. The advisory group included representation from industry-based safety programs, occupational hygienists, medical professionals who specialize in occupational health, employers, unions, the federal government, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the Workplace Safety and Health Branch.
In addition to collecting data, the strategy also aims to increase public awareness about occupational disease and illness and how they can be prevented as well as strengthen partnerships with other organizations with disease and illness prevention mandates. These partnerships allow SAFE Work Manitoba and its partners to share information, spread prevention messages more widely and work together on existing or new prevention initiatives.
Hall explained the team has partly been inspired by B.C.'s Silica Control Tool and have asked for their team's input. The tool was developed by the BC Construction Safety Alliance as a resource for the construction industry. The tool assists employers in conducting appropriate risk assessments and implementing effective controls and safe work practices where silica dust may be an occupational hazard. The information is easily accessed and searchable on cellphones, tablets or computers.
Hall sees the project possibly going in a similar direction though with a much broader scope to address multiple risks in multiple industries.
"We are going to be doing that, but in Manitoba and with lots of difference substances," said Hall, adding SAFE Work Manitoba is eager to share the results of the project with everyone. "We are excited about it and it's great to see some traction on having some youthful information. This will not only say that there is a problem but offer a solution."