The Health and Safety Revolution

An Interview with Vic Pakalnis, Amethyst Fellow at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies
Human Resources

Legal and societal trends are transforming our organizations, says Vic Pakalnis, Amethyst Fellow at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. In this Q&A, Vic, a senior leader with 30 years’ experience in the Ontario Public Service, says HR professionals have a key role in facing these challenges..

What are the top trends around safe and healthy workplaces?

There’s a huge sea change underway, akin to the revolution around driving under the influence of alcohol. Our culture has changed radically; people do not drink and drive anymore. In Occupational Health and Safety, it is no longer acceptable to injure workers. Accidents are not accidents. Every injury, every fatality, is preventable.

That is revolutionary thinking: in the past, lost-time injuries, fatalities even, were considered ‘the price of doing business.’ This is no longer the case: it’s considered outrageous, preventable, and organizations and supervisors are being held to account.

How is accountability for employee health and safety changing?

If you look at the legal framework, governments are tightening the requirements for people in direct responsibility roles. For example, the federal government passed Bill C-45, amendments to the Criminal Code. The first prosecution under that occurred earlier this year in Quebec, and it’s going to spread. Employers have to take preventative measures or they will be held accountable if a fatality or incident happens in the workplace.

In Ontario, the Ministry of Labour hired 200 new inspectors, who have been in the field since last year. The Ministry is targeting high-risk workplaces. The accident rates in the province right now are 1.8 per hundred workers. If a firm has an accident rate that is above that, they’re above the provincial average, and have to bring it down. There are certain sectors, such as mining, that are considerably lower than the provincial average. Underground mining is at .07 per hundred workers.

So what’s considered ‘normal’ has completely changed?

It’s revolutionary – and people don’t realize what’s happened, how much expectations have changed. In mining 30 years ago when I started at the Ministry of Labour, the accident rates were about 8.3 per hundred workers. And now they’re at .07 per hundred workers.

Mining got its act together. It put technology to work, has mandatory training for all – not only workers, but supervisors too. If mining could get it together, and created a safety culture that demands that kind of performance, it puts everyone else under the gun to improve.

HR and IR professionals need to search out best practices and make sure that they’re applied to their sector and their organizations.

What other health and safety trends do leaders need to know about?

There’s another huge revolution around the new Healthy Workplaces movement.

Healthy Workplaces has three aspects. The first is conventional Occupational Health and Safety, covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers Safety Insurance Act.

Healthy Habits is aspect two. These things aren’t legislated but affect a workplace, and include smoking, obesity, fitness, drug use – that sort of thing. Partially they are a personal responsibility, but employers can encourage healthy behaviours to create a healthy workplace – one that will attract the best and brightest. It’s a retention issue as well, because in the current situation, people walk very quickly, they vote with their feet.

The third aspect is the safety culture. Some refer to it as the ‘psycho-social’ side of this. It’s about how you treat people who are not coping well, who are stressed. I heard a quote from a Minister of Labour some years ago that said 3,000 nurses are off on stress leave every day in Canada. Think of the waste in terms of productivity. Organizations have to create atmospheres and create expectations that people don’t work 24/7, burning themselves out, causing all sorts of unsustainable family-work issues.

We need to change workplace culture; we need to support people. Twenty-five percent of our workers have mental health issues. That’s diagnosed mental health issues. There are many others that are undiagnosed.

That’s an alarmingly high number.

Yes, and most employers don’t realize it, don’t accept it, and don’t do anything about it. If you don’t create a supportive environment, if you don’t accommodate people, you’ll lose productivity. You’ll lose some of the brightest and the best because they just won’t be able to cope – they’ll be off on long-term disability and be a drain. But if you do support them, if you do deal with reality and deal with the issue, they’ll be exceptional workers that just need some help once in a while.

So, the revolution is coming in terms of the legal side of things; and in terms of society – the cultural expectations. Young workers of today, for example, won’t put up with what used to be considered ‘normal’. They have better knowledge: it’s mandatory in Ontario to have Occupational Health and Safety in high schools. Expectations of the workplace have changed.

For HR and IR leaders, what challenges flow out of new laws and societal attitudes?

Healthy Workplaces and Occupational Health and Safety should be every HR/IR professional’s radar screen. The website of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (, for example, is one great resource. Another is sponsored by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board sponsored (

The big challenges are attraction and retention. If your accident rates are high, word gets out – in the United States they actually post this information on the web. If you’re not a good employer, if you don’t provide healthy workplace practices, you won’t attract and retain the brightest and the best. So it’s a competitive problem in the end.

The second thing is the business case. One injury costs on average $75,000. One injury! That includes compensation costs, retraining costs for people that take on the injured worker’s job – all of the various costs involved. That’s for injury and illness. But for lung cancer, it’s around $200,000.

You can’t sustain injuries and illnesses and stay in business. You have to manage them and create a preventative environment. And most provinces now have fines in the order of $500,000 for each charge against you, and a fatality might involve two or three charges.

Human resource professionals also need to recognize that if you don’t have a healthy workplace, you don’t have engaged employees. If you don’t have engaged employees, you don’t have quality services. If you don’t have quality services, you start losing customers. There are huge downsides to ignoring these new trends.

Healthy Workplaces involves cultural change in the workplace, which is never easy. What is the role of HR here?

HR is usually the conscience of a firm. The department can provide Operations people with the necessary tools to change culture. I think Operations has to internalize it – you can’t do that from the outside – but HR professionals can gather up information, package it, give it to the Operations people, make it real for their particular industry. This is important because a healthy workplace won’t look the same for different organizations.

HR can also help with policies related to accommodating people with disabilities; with mental health issues; with family issues; policies that recognize that we all have lives outside of the workplace. Those HR policies help create a healthy workplaces, and Occupational Health and Safety is part of that framework.

Society’s new expectation that no fatalities in the workplace are acceptable is going to mean there’ll be far more pressure on organizations – and their leaders – to support healthy and safe workplaces in the coming years.

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