Advocate and pioneer challenges all to erase stigma faced by workers with disabilities

IWH's Nachemson lecture looks back on 20 years of achievements by NIDMAR and Wolfgang Zimmermann

Published: November 15, 2016

In 1977, at the age of 20, Wolfgang Zimmermann was stationed on the west coast of Vancouver Island at a 450-person logging camp. It was his first week on the job with forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel. It was also his first job falling trees.

In those days, training for new employees was not part of company procedures. It was simply: here’s a power saw, good luck, go for it, Zimmermann recalled before an audience of disability professional and practice leaders from across Canada attending the Institute for Work & Health (IWH)’s annual Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture. Zimmermann was cutting down a 50-foot alder when it “barber-chaired.” That is, it split down the middle and toppled over on Zimmermann. He was flown by helicopter to a Vancouver hospital with a broken back.

Wolfgang Zimmermann at Nachemson
National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR) executive director Wolfgang Zimmermann challenges the audience to "change the terrible narrative" of people with disabilities

Wolfgang Zimmermann, founder and executive director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR), challenges the audience to "change the terrible narrative" of people with disabilities.

Little did he know that this event would set him down a path that would change the way much of Canada and, indeed, the world, views the (re)integration of injured workers and people with disabilities into the workplace. Zimmermann was celebrated for this work at IWH’s 2016 Nachemson lecture, held in October in Toronto.

Job loss a turning point

After his accident, Zimmermann was initially able to return to work. His union, the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), went to bat for him, and MacMillan Bloedel accepted responsibility for the accident. The training regime for new fallers changed dramatically, and Zimmermann was brought back to work in a different job soon after his recovery.

However, in 1982, MacMillan Bloedel decided to terminate all of its workers with disabilities. In those days, “disability” wasn’t a protected ground of discrimination under B.C.’s human rigts legislation. (That didn’t happen until 1984.) This is really what got me started on my path, said Zimmermann. Having experienced the positive effects of job attachment after a workplace injury and then experiencing the negative effects, Zimmermann set out to change the way workers disabled by a workplace accident are treated by their employers.

In 1994, he founded the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR), where he remains the executive director to this day. Under his leadership, NIDMAR, based in Port Alberni, B.C., went on to develop a code of practice for managing workplace disabilities, certification standards and educational programs for disability management professionals, a workplace disability management audit tool and, more recently, a university dedicated to workplace health sciences.

At the 2016 Nachemson lecture, three speakers shared stories of Wolfgang Zimmermann's impact on disability management at their respective organizations. They are (from left to right): the Honourable Wayne G. Wouters, PC, former Clerk of the Privy Council; Joachim Breuer, director general of German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV); and Andrew King, former national leader of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers in Canada.

(It’s worth noting that, by the time NIDMAR was created, MacMillan Bloedel had changed its ways—in part because of the advocacy of Zimmermann. The company reversed its policies on retaining injured workers and, indeed, became a founding member of NIDMAR. MacMillan Bloedel was bought by Weyerhaeuser in 1999.)

Strong and balanced networks

The key to Zimmermann’s success, according to Andrew King, former national leader of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers in Canada, is that he was able to build a strong network of supporters from diverse backgrounds, often with conflicting interests. King was one of three speakers at the lecture who shared their experiences working with Zimmermann.

According to King, two themes ran through Zimmermann’s approach that allowed him to successfully move his agenda forward. First, he brought together a balanced table of key representatives to participate in his projects and on his boards, which were always chaired by representatives of the two central parties—management and labour—and always included workers with disabilities.

Second, he insisted that current practices be changed, using evidence, research and experience, to make real improvements in the lives of injured workers and workers with disabilities. Wolfgang’s work stands out for its unrelenting commitment to forge practice that will result in concrete improvements for workers in ways that are pragmatic and supportive of good practice in unions, business and government, King said.

A catalyst for workplace change

Zimmermann’s work has led to changes in many Canadian workplaces, including Canada’s largest—the federal public service. The Honourable Wayne G. Wouters, PC, another speaker at the IWH lecture, met Zimmermann 15 years ago when Wouters was the deputy minister of Human Resources Development Canada. His brother, working in the B.C. government at the time, told him he should meet someone who had new and interesting ideas about dealing with Canadians with disabilities in the workplace. That person was Zimmermann.

Wouters was intrigued not only because of his role at HRDC, but also because he was personally concerned about the welfare of an injured colleague who was like part of my family—his former driver Giovanni Lappa. Lappa had been cleaning his roof at home when his ladder slipped and, as a result of the ensuing fall, would never walk again.

I thought, okay, I’ll see what we can do to help get him back into the workforce, said Wouters. To his surprise, he learned there was no formal way for him to help integrate an injured employee. I had no idea what to do, he said. I knew I had to talk to Wolfgang.

Wouters would eventually become secretary of the Treasury Board and then clerk of the Privy Council (i.e. head of the federal public service), from which he has since retired. In all of these positions, the health of the Canadian government’s employees was a priority.

It was through my conversations with Wolfgang that I realized how little we were doing to ensure federal departments had the necessary tools to reintegrate people with disabilities into the workplace, said Wouters. He was my catalyst.

Today, many federal public service departments have work and wellbeing centres that have adopted return-to-work policies and practices. At least things are moving in the right direction, said Wouters, now chancellor of the Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences (PCU-WHS), the university founded by NIDMAR. Canada’s public service owes a great deal of gratitude to Wolfgang.

A simple and brilliant idea

NIDMAR’s influence has travelled beyond Canada. Germany, for example, was one of the earliest adopters and remains one of the strongest supporters of NIDMAR’s work.

Nachemson speaker Joachim Breuer, director general of German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV), certainly didn’t see that coming when he first met Zimmermann in 2000. He was skeptical that someone from Canada, with its relatively short history of social security, would have anything to offer a German agency that had been doing return to work for a hundred years.

Nonetheless, Breuer and his team soon realized Zimmermann was onto something. The most genius ideas are the simplest ones, he said. It’s not that Wolfgang invented return to work as a new philosophy. It was an old philosophy. No, his brilliant idea was to take the best of different return-to-work systems and make a standard out of it.

That standard was the International Labour Organization (ILO) code of practice for managing disabilities in the workplace. It drew on the workplace-based, joint labour-management model developed by NIDMAR. The code came with training modules, certification standards and audit tools, developed by NIDMAR to support the code’s implementation.

Despite some initial resistance, the NIDMAR approach took hold at DGUV. Today, Breuer told the Nachemson audience, Germany has more than 1,200 certified disability managers. We can show injured workers and companies that we have specialists who have been educated to meet not only German standards, but also international ones.

The impact of the code and NIDMAR continues to grow, Breuer pointed out. The biggest country in the world, China, looked around the world for the best disability management system, he said. It decided two-and-a-half years ago to adopt this one. So we’re not at the end of the story. We are just at the beginning.

Challenge to do more

Despite advocating for injured workers and workers with disabilities since his own accident 40 years ago, Zimmermann would agree that Canada, at least, is just at the beginning. Indeed, he called on all those in the audience at the Nachemson lecture to “change the terrible narrative” that continues to describe the reality of most people with disabilities today.

What is that reality? Zimmermann pointed to some statistics. Fewer than half of all Canadians with disabilities are employed, compared to 80 per cent of the general population. And more than one million people with disabilities in Canada live on social assistance, with an average monthly income of less than a $1,000 a month.

Zimmermann talked about how, through NIDMAR and the collective effort of champions, colleagues and friends, he has been lucky to be able to help advance the agenda for people with disabilities through the creation of standards, tools and the university. But we have a helluva lot further to go, he said.

Zimmermann challenged those in the audience to make a difference: to change workplace cultures that stigmatize workers with disabilities, to broaden and expand government programs and legislation that have proven successful, to convert research findings into concrete actions, and to conduct further research that goes beyond raising issues to finding answers.

I’m fortunate because I did not get pushed to the margins of society the way so many people with disabilities are, Zimmermann said. Now he’s calling on those in positions of influence to find solutions and make concrete changes that will make a measurable difference in achieving better outcomes for those who are not so fortunate.