In 1886, the Workmen's Compensation for Injuries Act passed in Ontario was the first compensation act for employees in Canada. It made it possible for workers to take legal action against employers. While working conditions had improved significantly several decades later in many industries, it was the latter part of the 20th century that saw some of the biggest changes for the better in industries such as construction.
By the 1980s in B.C., for example, the province's occupational health and safety regulations were becoming more prescriptive — particularly for high-risk industries such as construction. "Employers had to invest in health and safety programs," says Urvi Ramsoondar, assistant director of operations, BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA).
Two tragic workplace incidents in B.C.'s history remind the industry of the need for safety. In 1958 part of the Second Narrows Bridge over Burrard Inlet in Vancouver collapsed during construction, killing 18 workers, and in 1981 four construction workers fell to their deaths during construction of one of the office towers of the Bentall Centre in downtown Vancouver.
Ramsoondar says the BCCSA, formed in 2010 after the merger of the B.C. Construction Safety Network and the Construction Safety Association of B.C., developed a software program for its members that takes a novel approach to improving safety. Called the Safety Climate Tool, it gathers information on the attitudes of workers towards their company's safety efforts. Ramsoondar says it tallies worker feedback on safety standards, including safe work procedures, training, inspections and hazard assessment. From the answers that workers provide, the employer is given a rating for each area.
"It gives them (employer) insights into what their workers think of the culture of safety within their company."
Results through the safety climate tool indicate that in many firms the safety message doesn't pass clearly from the employer to the workers, according to Grant McMillan, strategic advisor to the Council of Construction Associations (COCA).
Ramsoondar adds: "In order to make behavioural change there has to be an understanding about what people believe about safety."
In B.C. McMillan says that workers compensation rates are about half of what contractors paid in the early 1990s because of the continued drive for safety by employers.
Bruce Collins, general manager of the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association (NSCSA), says the association is spearheading a study into the safety culture of construction firms. Indications early in that study are that in many workers are missing the safety message. Through the study, the association provides a report to each firm that includes recommendations and ongoing pre-consulting and mentoring services to help them improve safety culture.
Collins says the NSCSA was established in 1994 after the province's building industry experienced three consecutive years of 25 per cent hikes of workers compensation rates.
The industry has made significant improvements since then, he says. In 1993, there were 3.74 lost-time claims per $1 million of assessable payroll in Nova Scotia; last year, the lost-time claims were 0.48. Recent stats indicate that of the 5,700 employers in Nova Scotia's construction industry only 283 have lost-time injuries.
Collins believes that the way to change the culture of safety starts in the public school system with "basic rights, duties and responsibilities training early on and amplified in high school years so that people carry that information to the workplace."
Workers should know basic occupational health and safety requirements when they land their first jobs. If educating young people about safety doesn't become a standard, Collins suggests the only option is regulation (safety standards imposed through government legislation).
"If we don't do one of those two things we're not going to change the culture of safety in this province," he says.
Jackie Manuel, CEO, Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Safety Association (NLCSA), sees regulations as essential to the establishment of minimum safety thresholds because there will always be some companies — even if in a minority — that cut safety corners.
But Manuel says there are different ways to influence compliance. While government enforcement officials (building inspectors, for example) will interact with a number of companies, the NLCSA will interact with many more through the association's certification program, which requires member companies to meet provincial regulatory standards.
Manuel says the introduction of WHMIS legislation in the late 1980s had a "huge impact" on safety in the workplace.
"Silently, almost overnight, thousands of hazardous products disappeared from our workplace," she says.
Manufacturers, she says, realized that it was easier to simply take products off the shelves than see sales drop off if hazardous materials were identified on labels.
The WHMIS labelling system resulted in "right to know" legislation that gave workers the right to refuse unsafe work.
"Before that it was no one's fault because no one knew whether a product or material (asbestos-containing products, for example) was safe to use or not," says Cristina Selva, executive director, College of Carpenters & Allied Trades based in Toronto.
Another safety milestone came out of the Westray Mine explosion in 1992 that resulted in the deaths of 26 underground miners in Nova Scotia. It caused an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code in 2004 in which employers and supervisors could face criminal liability for workplace incidents, she points out, noting that government tends to "react" to major disasters.
But while Ontario sees an average of 20 or more construction fatalities annually and 100 or more critical injuries yearly, most sadly occur with little fanfare or government response, she says.
"Can you imagine if 20-25 firefighters, officers or ambulance workers were killed in a year doing their job? The problem is that it is an acceptable statistic in our industry," says Selva.
Of the non-fatal chronic diseases, hearing loss tops the list in Ontario's construction industry, says Selva, adding that solar radiation (exposure to sun) is another. While hearing protection and even sunscreen might be recommended on some jobsites, there is no sign of mandatory regulations.
Today's construction workers dress differently for the job than their counterparts of 50 years ago. But the personal protective equipment adorned by modern workers has not changed much in decades.
"There hasn't been an (personal protective) equipment evolution but rather a recognition that it should be utilized," says Mark Elias, media relations, the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association of Ontario.