Canada has a workplace safety problem – hundreds of employees die every year on the job, and hundreds of thousands are injured.

Throughout the country, occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation and regulation tries to make workplaces safer.[1] Every province and territory has legislation that places responsibilities on employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers, and corresponding insurance programs to compensate workers who are injured on the job.

But what if there was a better way – an approach that goes beyond the OHS rules and regulations to make Canada’s workplaces safer?

On Tuesday, the Canada West Foundation is releasing a new report that tells the story of how one company transformed its workplace safety – and shows how adopting a pan-Canadian competency framework (described by the Canada West Foundation’s Human Capital Centre) can make a big improvement in worker safety.

Occupational Health and Safety legislation focuses on the conditions in the workplace. It combines education and training programs (often operated though the insurance provider or an accredited industry group), and enforcement and inspections (operated by the Ministry of Labour or delegated organisation), generally relying on complaints lodged by workers experiencing unsafe environments.

Many workplaces also have health and safety committees, with certain industries, such as construction, developing uniform national guidelines and certification programs that recognize businesses that implement a health and safety committee; in some sectors, these kinds of committees are mandatory.[2]

OHS regimes in Canada were developed on the principles laid out in the Meredith Report of 1913.[3] The workplace addressed in those rules would be reflected better in the writings of Charles Dickens than the modern working environment.

Since then, the rules have been modernized. As injuries occur, legislatures and regulators respond by modifying the OHS regimes, and adding additional training. It is an iterative approach. As such, OHS management systems have become complex, with components ranging from incident investigation to ergonomics; hazard identification and risk assessment to workplace violence prevention.

OHS today plays a role in preventing a return to Victorian Era conditions – think moustachioed factory owners compelling staff to perform dangerous tasks, or enter hazardous environments without safety equipment. But there’s not much demand for chimney sweeps these days; improvements in workplace safety, meanwhile, only make minor incremental improvements – or have plateaued altogether.

Though some of the smaller OHS regulators still strive for zero injuries in the workplace, most jurisdictions have essentially accepted that, in the current environment, worker injury and disability is unavoidable.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Watch for our new report Beyond the Rules: Moving safety from compliance to competence. The report shows how an Alberta firm learned that a competency approach – one that focuses on the things workers can do on the job, not just what their certificates say they can do –  can truly work. Imagine the potential for all of Canada’s workforce.

Stay tuned.

Jahangir Valiani is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation

[1] See, for example, Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1, s. 4.1(2); or Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, B.C. Reg. 296/97, s.4.1.

[2] For example, Occupational Health and Safety Committees are required for each mine under the BC Mines Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 293, s.32.

[3] Meredith, William R. Final Report on Laws relating to the liability of employers to make compensation to their employees for injuries received in the course of their employment which are in force in other countries, and as to how far such laws are found to work satisfactorily. Toronto: Kings Printer, 1913.