One of the core ideas underpinning Ontario’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system is that workers have a right to participate in decisions that affect their health and safety.
That idea, part of the “internal responsibility system” (IRS), is why the province’s OHS legislation provides for worker participation through joint health and safety committees. It’s also why the law protects worker rights such as the right to know about hazards, the right to participate in identifying and solving health and safety problems, and the right to refuse unsafe work.
But concerns about the integrity of the internal responsibility system in underground mining became a focus during the 2014 Mining Health, Safety and Prevention Review, called by Ontario’s Minister of Labour. When the review wrapped up in 2015, one of its recommendations was for the employer group, the Ontario Mining Association, to “work with labour representatives to develop an Internal Responsibility System best practice guideline as an industry benchmark.” The guideline would be endorsed by the association for implementation by its members, the review suggested.
As a member of the review’s advisory group, Institute for Work & Health (IWH) President and Senior Scientist Dr. Cameron Mustard helped develop a series of best practice statements describing what an effective IRS looks like. And responding to this recommendation, he led a research team at IWH to help the health and safety association Workplace Safety North (WSN) create a questionnaire based on these statements.
The result of this work is an assessment method called the Internal Responsibility System Climate Assessment and Audit Tool (IRS CAAT), which mining operations can use to measure how well their IRS is working.
(It) provides insight into an organization’s health and safety ecosystem, looking at the interdependence between the system and the culture, says Mike Parent, director of mining at WSN.
This insight provides an organization with relevant information and a roadmap to tactically develop objectives to improve its health and safety performance.
A product of collaboration
The work that led to this questionnaire offers a positive example of collaboration across the system—one that integrates research and front-line experience—to produce a practical tool, says Mustard.
Although we didn’t bring to this review an expertise in health and safety in mining, I think the review felt it was good practice to have access to an impartial research perspective as a source of advice on how research methods might support the work of the advisory group, he adds.
The development of this tool in response to the recommendations was a natural extension of that research contribution.
The Mining Health, Safety and Prevention Review was launched following the deaths of two workers in a Sudbury mine. During public consultations held in northern Ontario, the review heard about IRS shortcomings in the industry. Labour groups, in particular, drove home the point that worker safety concerns were often ignored.
That feedback elevated the internal responsibility system as an area of focus for the review—alongside other topics such as ground control hazards, water management hazards, emergency response, and worker training and labour supply challenges. As the working group on this topic examined ways to strengthen the IRS, the employer and labour representatives disagreed about whether roles and responsibilities in the IRS should be spelled out. They did agree, however, with Mustard’s proposal to develop a series of best practice statements that describe what an effective internal responsibility system would look like.
The drafting of these statements drew on review consultations, academic publications, 25 interviews with subject-matter experts, and documents prepared by standards or regulatory authorities. The statements were grouped under four headings: (1) management practice; (2) worker representation and participation; (3) clear standards; and (4) effective enforcement.
To create an IRS assessment tool, an IWH team worked with WSN to turn the best practice statements into questions. Three different versions of each question were developed to elicit the perspectives of workers, supervisors and senior managers.
Once the questionnaire was ready to be tested for its measurement properties, WSN took charge of recruitment. It invited four mining operations to take part, resulting in a sample of about 1,900 respondents. The IWH team then conducted the statistical analysis of the responses.
It found important score differences between the four mining operations. In addition, the mining operation with the most positive IRS scores had the lowest frequency of lost-time and no-lost time workers’ compensation claims. An overview of the findings was presented in April at WSN’s 19th Annual Mining Health and Safety Conference in Sudbury, Ont.
The tool is now being piloted by WSN to provide mining operations with a snapshot of how their IRS is functioning.
WSN’s Parent credits the joint efforts of many different stakeholders for the final product.
The IRS CAAT initiative, which will help make workplaces safer, would not exist today without the collaborative partnerships between the Institute for Work & Health and Workplace Safety North, and the support of organized labour and the Ontario mining industry, he says.