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Sustainable Development

Climate assessments gauge workplace safety

November 14, 2016
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Sustainable Development

Internal Responsibility System gets checkup

Workplace Safety North, a provider of health and safety services and training for the Ontario mining industry, is in the process of completing “climate assessments” at six mines in the province to gauge the effectiveness of the Internal Responsibility System (IRS), the underlying philosophy of occupational health and safety in Ontario and other Canadian jurisdictions.

Acting on a recommendation from the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s 2015 Mining Health, Safety and Prevention Review, Workplace Safety North developed the IRS Climate Assessment Tool, a comprehensive methodology for assessing workplace culture.

“We asked for volunteers and had an overwhelming response,” said Cindy Schiewek. “We can’t disclose the identities of the sites selected, but we aimed to have a mix of large and small sites, older established mines and newer operations. We also made a point of including one remote location.”

The Internal Responsibility System has its origins in the 1975 Ham Commission Report on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Labour, “the IRS is a system within an organization where everyone has direct responsibility for health and safety as an essential part of his or her job. It does not matter who or where the person is in the organization… Each person takes initiative on health and safety issues and works to solve problems and make improvements on an on-going basis…”

Unfortunately, the climate or culture of the workplace can undermine its effectiveness, leading to a breakdown of the system and the potential for workplace accidents and injuries.

“You can walk into a workplace and tell if there’s a strong IRS, or not,” said Schiewek. “For example, you can have a small mom and pop business with 20 employees that is experiencing rapid growth. The ownership may be under a lot of pressure, and when you walk into their shop, it’s just utter chaos.”

The climate assessment and audit is performed by a team of five people and takes place over three days.

Interviews are conducted with managers, supervisors, joint health and safety committee members, workers and contractors.

“We’ll ask them if they perform risk assessments, if they feel safe working at their location and if they are comfortable refusing unsafe work,” said Schiewek. “We try to make sure they have the systemic pieces in place to manage risk. For example, they may be doing risk assessments, but have they included the workers in it?

“It’s important to make sure that workers are involved in the risk assessment process for the IRS to be effective because, when they’re involved, they take ownership of it and understand it.”

A work environment can also be poisoned by bullying, poor communication skills and interpersonal friction.

“How are workers being treated and motivated?” asked Schiewek. “Has there been any soft skills training?

Sometimes, it’s as simple as supervisors not knowing how to talk to people.

“Coming in as a third party, you can see it right away. Not everyone in the workplace is going to get along, but people in the mining industry work in some pretty hazardous conditions, so you don’t want them in that frame of mind.”

Following an audit, Workplace Safety North personnel analyze the results and report back to an IRS task force representing a cross section of management and workers at the site.

“They decide what to do with the findings and how they’re going to tackle it,” said Schiewek.

“It’s really an exercise in vulnerability because if you’re sitting at the top of the food chain in one of these operations, you’re going to know what people think. As a senior manager, you’re putting in place a lot of these systems and sometimes, you find out that they aren’t working.

“I congratulate these operations that have volunteered because it takes a lot of guts to go through this exercise. But the payoff at the end of the day is really worth it.”

The six pilots are scheduled for completion by the end of December, but Schiewek hopes to be able to offer IRS climate assessments more broadly to other mines and workplaces in Ontario.

“The mining sector has led the way in health and safety for years,” said Schiewek. “They’re the ones people look up to for health and safety. It’s great if we can help the mining sector, but it’s even better if we can contribute to improved health and safety across Ontario, so this has far-reaching potential.”

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