The logic of practice: An ethnographic study of front-line service work with small businesses in Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board


Eakin J, MacEachen E, Mansfield L, Clarke J


Objective: To characterize and explain the nature, logic and social relations of front-line service work at Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), particularly in relation to the institutional context in which it takes place.

Methods: Individual interviews with adjudicators, nurse case managers and customer service representatives, and managers working with small businesses, "go-along" observations of routine activities, and documentary materials (e.g. electronic forms, policy manuals, performance tools) were collected from two WSIB offices (urban and regional) during 2005-2007 and analyzed using interpretive qualitative methodology.

Results: The WSIB has deep-set competing institutional accountabilities that frame work at the front-line. Front-line work is a "professional assembly line" where judgment and flexibility are required within a highly standardized process. Strategic discursive (language/talk) and strategic discretionary practices enable staff to "keep things moving," solve problems, manage clients, and handle conflicting expectations. Work with small businesses has distinctive challenges within an administrative and policy system designed for larger organizations, and is affected by the marginal, oft-changing status of small business within the WSIB.

Conclusions: Front-line staff mediate the competing objectives of the WSIB and manage a delicate set of "disciplinary" relations with involuntary clients in a context of limited, uncertain, and changing rules, policies and resources. Findings have implications for injured/ill workers, employers, WSIB administrators, front-line workers themselves, and the occupational health system as a whole.