Our health is not (supposed to be) for sale: What’s the cost and for whom?

Dorothy Wigmore, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Overview: “Our health is not for sale” was a slogan motivating health and safety activists and students in the 1970s. An honourable goal, it is a dream for most workers, especially in an economy increasingly based on contingent/precarious/temporary jobs and deregulation.

There are many ways to change this. An important one is making the issue a problem: What does the problem of unsafe and unhealthy jobs cost? For whom? Recent American and Australian research confirms what many of us know: workers’ compensation systems—and the employers using them—pay very little compared to workers, their families, communities and private/public health and social programs.

Researchers observed this during a workplace-based Manitoba project to develop tools to help joint health and safety committees be more effective. Asking the question wasn’t enough. They took some baby steps using publicly available documents to integrate cost estimates into several tools and discussed their creative use with the current law to persuade decision-makers of the need for preventive measures.

Conclusion: Asking “what does the problem cost?” should be part of every health and safety program, along with the answers and preventive responses to them. Workers, their unions and employers need tools, systems and appropriate incentives to “see with new eyes,” document the costs for all involved, and do something about them to reduce the toll of unsafe and unhealthy jobs. And they need health and safety enforcement and regulatory systems that take this approach, to increase the odds that workers’ health is not for sale.