Equity through a workplace health and safety lens

Safety equipment blocking stairs, and ramp leading to door

Using the source-path- worker model to centre equity

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the subsequent response by our respective employers highlighted the systemic inequities in not only the funding of our work, but also the inequitable exposure of workers to risk depending on the individual circumstances of one’s job. What is less often talked about is the idea that one’s individual characteristics such as (but not exclusive to) race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability significantly impacts one’s exposure to risk and access to health and safety processes. The pandemic revealed how Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers faced higher rates of exposure to COVID-19 and lower rates of protection (VAW Learning Network, n.d.).

The effects of racism on the health and well-being of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people have been well-documented (Nestel, 2012; PHAC, 2020). In recent times, calls have been made to have racism declared a public health issue (Nembhard & White, 2020). Racism and other forms of oppression that exist within the education sector are a hazard and should be identified as such as they negatively impact the well-being of our workers. However, these same oppressions are often difficult to identify and even harder to mitigate due to the extent to which they are embedded into our everyday practices. Our employers have been quick to jump on board anti-racism and anti-oppression curricular practices, but they see these issues as siloed off from traditional health and safety committees and spaces. Racism and oppression are a health and safety hazard for the Members of OSSTF/FEESO, and as such, they need to be talked about in those spaces using the mechanisms of the Ontario Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to better protect worker health.

The pandemic did have one, small, silver lining —that workers now have a capacity for health and safety language they did not previously have. OSSTF/FEESO Members are now better equipped to talk about hazards in the workplace and their mitigation strategies—be those actions taken at the source of the hazard, along the path of the hazard, or at the worker themselves. What if the hazards are the oppressive practices within the education sector? Examination of a hazard using this modeling can also be used to analyze and discuss the harms done to those in our union because of systemic racism and oppression. We should be able to transfer our health and safety learning from the pandemic and apply it to necessary strategies to help end systemic harms being done to OSSTF/FEESO Members due to their impact as psycho-social hazards. Since they are a hazard, it is wholly appropriate to make recommendations about them at our Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC).

In any hazardous situation for workers, intervention should be straight forward. If a pandemic is raging, we would recommend things like improving ventilation and wearing a mask. If there is asbestos in a building, we would abate it. But what if the hazard is the language we use, the materials we utilize in our classrooms, or the practices employed day to day by management? With most types of hazards, the pathway forward is far clearer, and we never rely solely on those people experiencing the hazard to teach us how to fix it. We as a union would advocate for action and change so that everyone can experience a safer workplace. We would take the position that workers have a right to go home as whole as they arrived. So why is this not the same when it comes to racism and oppression? With the right advocacy, the provisions and rights we have under OHSA pair well with this work and gives us great influence to effect change using an anti-racist and anti-oppression lens. We need to build this capacity within our health and safety spaces and advocate for conversations around equity, anti-racism, and anti-oppression.

When analyzing a hazard on the health and safety of a worker, one must weigh the best way to mitigate its harms. One of the ways to do this is to look at types of control.

Types of Control chart. Shows barrels caution tape and a mask
If one is to try to mitigate the hazard at the source, an employer could encapsulate a poisonous material differently during its use. If that’s not feasible, along the path one could change the ventilation of the area to try to control the poisonous gas’ access to the worker while they perform a task. In situations like a pandemic, the mitigation strategy is likely to end up at the worker—be it through a hazmat suit, mask respirator, or gloves. The closer the hazard gets to the worker, the less effective the mitigation. So, while it makes sense to put on a mask to try to keep oneself safe from COVID-19, a far more effective strategy is to get better ventilation, HEPA units, paid sick days, etc—all examples of strategies along the path. But, how does one mitigate systemic racism and oppression using a health and safety lens, then?

If we apply the Source—Path—Worker model to this hazard, we simply cannot insulate those experiencing harm using PPE or other “at the worker” strategies—in doing so, we are only acknowledging the hazard is not going to be removed. In all health and safety scenarios, this is the least successful strategy. Instead, we need to focus on strategies “along the path” or “at the source” and this involves advocacy in our health and safety spaces. The most effective mitigation strategies are always at the source of the hazard—which involves transforming the system itself. While this work takes time, sitting idly is not an option because if we do nothing the harms will continue in the interim. Inaction simply compounds the existing hazard. We must do something, even if it is met with significant resistance. Examples of actions a Bargaining Unit can take include bargaining for protected committee space with our employers with a focus on workplace violence and the intersectional experiences of worker groups. These discussions could also focus on reporting culture and management reprisals, with an eye to identifying best practices and recommendations to school boards and their policy makers. This could work well in conjunction with our union position that school boards are not using their Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committees to discuss employee experiences, instead choosing to focus on changes to student-related practices. Members of OSSTF/FEESO experience violent acts and harms by their interactions with the public and their students, yet many of these instances are not explored in their full context, instead they are separated from traditional health and safety discussions —so let’s bargain for the space to challenge these realities head on with our employers. These types of changes are hard, but paramount to our work as educators, and most importantly to what we do as advocates for the greater good for all those in public education.

In the health and safety continuum, the next most effective intervention would be “along the path,” which involves changes in both employer policy and the actions of the rank-and-file workers of the organization. As OSSTF/FEESO we need to walk the path, so to speak, towards a more equitable education system. We have mechanisms to effect that change, or at the very least to get a response from the employer in writing as to why they allow harms to perpetuate. We have the means to use provisions of what are called 21-day recommendations under OSHA, Sec 9.21. We can make these recommendations in good faith to examine aspects of racism and oppression, including but not limited to workplace violence trends, enforcement of anti-harassment policies, and any other hazard that we can identify in our workplaces. We can ask our employers tough questions about their duty to protect their workers from harm under Sec. 32.0.1 of OHSA, and if they disagree with our recommendations, they are required to put their rationale in writing as to why they are not going to change their policies and procedures. It is a requirement under Sec 9.21 that employers must respond in writing within twenty-one days of our submission. If our employers push back against these tough questions, or refuse to act upon clear data and trends that show these harms are being done, we can grieve or involve the Ministry of Labour inspectors where appropriate. What is most important is that we collectively push our respective employers to put in writing their action (or inaction) on these data-supported recommendations and we share our results across the entire union. We can, and should, be using these mechanisms to consistently hold our employers to task about these data-supported hazards in our workplaces that are not being currently mitigated.

Part of this “along the path” work is a need to rethink what is a hazard in health and safety discussions. Certified representatives have been taught to report hazards that fit far more cleanly into the existing tracking systems, which our employers are happy to keep as the status quo, as they are easier to manage. Jones and Okun discuss a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which appear in our organizations and which speak to this trend towards maintenance of the old way of doing things. For instance, the authors describe the tendency for organizations to operate with a “sense of urgency” towards problem solving (Jones and Okun, 1999). From a health and safety perspective, this results in the development of checklists for health and safety inspections that do not discuss more complex issues such as psycho-social hazards or the impacts of oppression on workers. Jones and Okun also highlight a tendency towards quantity over quality where “all resources of the organization are directed towards producing measurable goals” (Jones and Okun, 1999). When translating this to health and safety work, it is reflected when talking about the number of inspections of vents, filters changed, or slips and trips. While these are valuable things to discuss and note, there is a hyper-focus on these types of hazards which results in committee meetings where agendas speak more about the wellness of a physical building than the health of our workers who work inside. Psycho-social hazards are intricate and require more time and resources to be addressed. We need to challenge notion that just because a hazard is complex it shouldn’t be prioritized. This is how to situate anti-oppression work as a health and safety issue.

OSSTF/FEESO also has much anti-racist and anti-oppressive work to do within our own Federation. We have our own barriers to participation that have resulted in the absence or silencing of voices from equity-seeking groups. The TUC Report titled Health, Safety and Racism in the Workplace: A Study of Black Workers’ Experiences reports that within the context of the UK, “Black workers make up a disproportionate minority of union health and safety representatives” (p.3). The report also highlights that part of the reason for the lack of racialized representatives was fear of victimisation, reprisal, and associated psycho-social hazards from having to interact too much with management (TUC, 2022).

I do believe that, in terms of OSSTF/FEESO’s own practices, that an examination of the demographic composition of our health and safety reps would be paramount when examining the influence systemic oppression is continuing to have in our own spaces. Having reps that reflect the diversity of the communities we live and work in would be extremely beneficial in identifying insidious racist and oppressive practices in our workspaces. Increasing representation is important but equally essential is providing safe spaces, free from consequences for those speaking out, that are conducive for these conversations to take place. While it is important to create spaces and opportunities, we must also remember that barriers to participation continue to exist in our work and unions spaces and it is the responsibility of everyone to address. I would hope that perhaps our recently-established District-level Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism and Equity Officers could help us address this aspect of our practice.

In the conclusion section of the TUC Report, it notes that there is “[a] complex but intrinsic relationship between race and health and safety and the inequality of risk” (TUC, 2022). While this research was primarily designed to look at the experiences of Black workers during the pandemic, it determined in general that “…concentration on physical risk can overlook the impact of racism as central to the health and safety of workers” (TUC, 2022). It seems more than past due for OSSTF/FEESO to start encouraging our locals to not allow employers to silo off equity work separate from racism and oppression’s clear impact on worker health and safety. At the same time, as a Federation we should be determined to break down the barriers that exist that discourage or prevent equity-seeking Members from participating more in health and safety spaces. Empowerment, mentoring, and opportunity belong firmly within our union. We need more representatives that reflect the communities and the make-up of our workplaces. Equity work is hard — but it is a necessary mitigation strategy to promote the health and safety of our membership. We need more action “along the path” today to do that properly. When health and safety is siloed off from equity and anti-oppression, it is stifling some of the most challenging and important decolonizing aspects of our workplaces, and union spaces, that need to occur.

Works Cited

Abdillahi, I. & Shaw, A., (2020). “Social Determinants and Inequities in Health for Black Canadians: A Snapshot.” Public Health Agency of Canada. Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/population-health/what-determines-health/social-determinants-inequities-black-canadians-snapshot.html
Kenneth, J. & Okun, T. (1999). “White Supremacy Culture. dRworks Collaborative. Internet.” Retrieved from: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
Nembhard S. & White K., (2020, November 11). “It’s Time to Declare Racism a Public Health Issue.” Urban Wire Institute. Washington D.C. Retrieved from: https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/its-time-declare-racism-public-health-issue
Nestel, S. (2012, January). “Colour Coded Health Care: The Impact of Race and Racism on Canadian’s Health.” Wellesley Institute. Toronto, ON. Retrieved from: https://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Colour-Coded-Health-Care-Sheryl-Nestel.pdf
Trades Union Congress <TUC> (2020, July). “Health, Safety & Racism in the Workplace: A Study of Black Worker’s Experiences.” Centre for Research on Employment and Work, University of Greenwich. Retrieved from: https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-08/HealthSsafetyRacism.pdf
VAW Learning Network, (n.d.) “More Exposed & Less Protected in Canada: Racial Inequality as Systemic Violence During COVID-19.” Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children. London, ON. Retrieved from: https://www.vawlearningnetwork.ca/docs/Systemic-Racism-Covid-19-Backgrounder.pdf

About Chris Clarke
Chris Clarke is the Teacher Bargaining Unit Vice-President in District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge.

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