Vulnerability survey helps employer assess worker OHS awareness, empowerment

Health and safety leader Carillion Canada uses IWH’s new measure to identify weaknesses in organization

Published: November 15, 2016

Even employers committed to health and safety may have areas of weakness within their organizations. A construction and facilities management company learned this recently, with the help of an occupational health and safety (OHS) vulnerability measure developed by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

By many indications, Carillion Canada has a strong record on health and safety. This Canadian subsidiary, which employs 6,000 people, has won a Canada Safest Employers award from Canadian Occupational Safety magazine for two years in a row.

Health and safety is really at the forefront of everything, says Lee-Anne Lyon-Bartley, Carillion Canada’s health, safety, quality and sustainability manager for the services business. We have very visible leadership, and a lot of programs and initiatives on health and safety. It makes my job easier having such a strong safety culture and mindful leadership in place.

Lyon-Bartley learned of IWH’s OHS Vulnerability Measure thanks to her involvement on the Commercial Industrial Services (CIS) Advisory Committee of Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), one of Ontario’s four sector-based health and safety associations. At the time, a research team at IWH was recruiting companies for a study testing the application and feasibility of the tool in workplaces, and it had reached out to WSPS for help.

Carillion signed up out of a wish to support workplace health research. We’re interested in being engaged and involved in research—in providing real-life, on-site opportunities for research, says Lyon-Bartley. Why? We knew we might benefit from the information we get, says Lyon-Bartley. And we hope that others might also benefit from the results that come out of a study. If Carillion can help make workplaces in Canada safer, then it’s a win-win for all of us.

Dimensions of vulnerability

The OHS Vulnerability Measure is a 27-item employee survey developed to assess the likelihood that workers are at risk of injury. The measure is based on the idea that it’s not just workplace hazards that make workers vulnerable. They’re vulnerable when they are exposed to hazards and not aware of health and safety issues, or not empowered to speak up or refuse work, or not adequately protected by the organization’s OHS practices and policies. (More about the development of this measure is available in a Spring 2015 At Work article.)

So what did Lyon-Bartley expect to find?

I expected to find some vulnerability. I think anyone would, says Lyon-Bartley. But I wasn’t sure what it would look like or where it would be. We wanted to find out these things to help us learn where to further our efforts in terms of prevention and continuous improvement.

The results confirmed a few positives that Lyon-Bartley had always known about Carillion. A majority of the respondents said their supervisors were aware of workplace hazards, for example. Also, employees knew they could report hazards using our ‘Don’t Walk By’ program, as well as report near misses and accidents, no matter how minor they may seem. So it’s good to know that they know that and are clear on that.

The company was also pleased that its investment around regular, ongoing training was evident, as respondents said they had received training in the past 12 months.

Still, there were a few surprises. Many respondents did not know about Ontario’s mandatory health and safety awareness training, even though they all went through it, says Lyon-Bartley. So that has us saying, ‘Okay, did we miss something? Did we not communicate it properly?

Some of the hazards reported by workers weren’t a surprise, especially those related to musculoskeletal problems in the hand and wrist or to awkward postures. Somewhat more sobering for Lyon-Bartley were employee responses with respect to empowerment. Around empowerment is where there’s room for improvement, says Lyon-Bartley. People felt they did not have enough authority over their own work.

It’s too early for Carillion to act on these results. Only three facilities took part in the study—not a representative sample. But Lyon-Bartley says she expects to offer the survey again in a larger cross-section of the company, likely two years after the first one.

However, the company is in the process of reviewing and changing its management system, and some of the findings from the OHS Vulnerability Measure will be taken into account. These ideas are in the back of our mind as we’re updating policies and procedures, Lyon-Bartley says. For example, in terms of training and communication, we’re already thinking differently about how we communicate and whether our messages get to all employees effectively.

Beyond the ability to benchmark Carillion against other Ontario employers (a benefit enjoyed by participants of this research project), Lyon-Bartley likes how the survey frames vulnerability.

Overall, the idea of looking at vulnerability beyond the individual is what I appreciated, she says. When you hear ‘vulnerable workers,’ you associate it with certain groups of people. This takes that perspective away and allows you to look at vulnerability more objectively, putting the issue back on the workplace and not the worker.

The OHS Vulnerability Measure is free to download at: A guide to using the measure is also available to help organizations with issues such as how to ensure worker confidentiality, how to determine if workers are exposed to hazards, and how to interpret results to pinpoint areas for improvement.

Lee-Anne Lyon-Bartley, vice-president, health and safety at Carillion in Canada, with Andy Jones, president and CEO. Photo: Gary Beechey