External influences motivate firms to make large improvements in workplace health and safety performance: IWH study

March 11, 2016 (Toronto, Ontario)—When workplaces make large improvements in occupational health and safety (OHS), it seems some type of external influence helps bring three internal factors into play: an organizational motivation to take action in OHS, the introduction of new OHS knowledge, and an engaged health and safety champion who integrates that knowledge into the organization.

This is one of the conclusions of an Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study published online today by the journal Safety Science (doi 10.1016/j.ssci.2016.02.023). Led by IWH Scientist Dr. Lynda Robson, the exploratory, case-study-based research examined workplaces that made substantial improvements in OHS performance to identify the factors contributing to their “breakthrough change.”

Past research has identified the characteristics distinguishing workplaces that do well in injury and disability prevention from those that don't, says Robson. But not much is known about how and why low performers in health and safety become good performers. This study helps fill that knowledge gap.

The study found change was typically initiated by one or more external influences acting on the workplace, such as a government OHS inspection, market pressure from industry clients or a serious injury happening in a similar business. As a result, new OHS knowledge, especially about OHS management and risk control, was sought out and brought into the workplace, orchestrated by an OHS champion who integrated this new knowledge into the workings of the organization. This was done by developing policies and procedures, ensuring their implementation, coordinating and communicating with parties throughout the workplace, and following up on identified issues.

This champion, a ‘knowledge transformation leader,’ appears to be a key figure in the initiation of breakthrough change, says Robson. Whether it was a newly hired OHS practitioner, someone already in the workplace given new responsibilities for OHS or even the owner, this person tended to have strong people and organizational skills, with an ability to work easily with, and get the support of, workers, supervisors and managers.

How the study was conducted

To conduct the study, Robson and her team combed through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics of 2,599 Ontario firms to find those that had undergone a large change over the period 1998 to 2008. They looked for firms that started out among the 50 per cent with the highest claim rates in their sectors, and ended up 10 years later among the 20 per cent with the lowest claims rates. They did brief interviews, which confirmed that the majority of firms experienced this change as part of an intentional effort to improve health and safety—not as a result of reorganization or another unrelated reason.

From a pool of 12 firms that met the team’s change criteria and intentionally made OHS improvements, Robson and her team then homed in on four workplaces from different sectors. They toured the organizations and conducted interviews with about 10 individuals at each. They also drew on a wide range of documentation—from notes of the joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) to Ministry of Labour (MOL) records of orders. The goal was to put together a picture of employee health and safety at these workplaces and the reasons why claims rates declined.

The team learned that, once the change process was in place, other common factors came into play, including: positive social dynamics (e.g. energized joint health and safety committee, worker empowerment), organizational responsiveness to worker concerns, supportive internal context (e.g. senior management support for OHS, good labour relations, low turnover), supportive simultaneous improvement in core operations (e.g. “lean,” quality initiatives) and a continuous OHS improvement approach. In the end, these resulted in reduced risks in the workplace and, eventually, fewer injuries.

The study, “Important factors in common among organizations making large improvement in OHS performance: Results of an exploratory multiple case study,” is currently available online through open access. It will also be published in print in the July 2016 edition of Safety Science (Vol. 86, pp. 211-227).

A summary of each participating firm’s story of “breakthrough change” is available at: https://www.iwh.on.ca/btc-case-study-series

About Safety Science

Safety Science is an international journal for research in the science and technology of human and industrial safety, published by Elsevier. Its research extends from safety of people at work to other spheres, such as transport, energy and other fields of hazardous activities. Find out more at http://www.journals.elsevier.com/safety-science/

About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that conducts and mobilizes research to support policy-makers, employers and workers in creating healthy, safe and inclusive work environments. The Institute provides practical and relevant findings and evidence-based products on the inter-relationships between work and health from worker, workplace and systems perspectives. iwh.on.ca

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