Friday, March 28, 2014

Is twitter an effective way to get some action... on OHS?

Three weeks ago, the government indicated it would be lowering the OHS boom on the residential construction industry with an(other) inspection blitz.  Residential construction is notorious for poor safety practices. You can see some WCB data for residential construction general contractors here, although whether this is representative of the industry is hard to know.

I’ve turned in a number of residential construction sites over the years over a lack of fall protection. This usually involves phoning or emailing the OHS contact centre. While there is no recent data on response times, the 2010 Auditor General’s report suggested it can take up to 18 days to get an officer out (actual response times vary, depending on the severity of the risk or injury and case loads).

This slow response time is consistent with Alberta’s lack of interest in enforcing its employment laws in general. Given the transiency of many residential construction sites (e.g., roofing jobs can be done in a day) this delay makes enforcement difficult—the job may be done and the company gone before anyone can arrive on site.

One way activists have been triggering Alberta to respond to long-term issues (e.g., elder abuse in care homes, children dying in foster care) is to publicly embarrass the government. By politicizing the issue, activists van avoid having it disappear into the bureaucracy that Alberta has developed to (privately) manage (and diffuse) such issues.

Last Thursday, I watched some construction workers across the street lift a bunch of joists atop of a two-storey house. This included the workers walking the snow-covered outside walls (with no fall protection) in order to position the beams. Then I tweeted the Minister:

There were three OHS inspectors on-site in less than an hour. Then they went away and the guys were back at it so I tweeted the Minister again.

This time there was an OHS inspector there in 10 minutes and he stayed for the afternoon. I presume he was doing paperwork in his truck. It was quite interesting to see the workers work for a bit, then peer over the edge to see if his truck was still there.

Interestingly, the minister tweeted back, noting the workers were in compliance the second time. Clearly he was interested enough to have a report come back up to him, And the speed of the response was uncharacteristic of most ministerial actions requests in government.

While I haven’t been keeping a close watch in the worksite since then, I have seen the workers wearing harnesses.

The main conclusion I’d draw from this case (recognizing n=1) is that tweeting OHS complaints with pictures and including a hashtag that lots of people follow (e.g., #ableg) is an effective way to trigger rapid enforcement.

I’d guess this is because it makes (1) noncompliance public and (2) it “tags” a politician as responsible for doing something about it. If the worker had fallen to his death, the Minister (rightly or wrongly) would have worn that fatality. And it would have visibly revealed the broad ineffectiveness of Alberta’s (vastly under-resourced) OHS system.

The workers’ response to enforcement also seems to validate the literature (which says enforcement generate compliance). An interesting question is whether an OHS awareness campaign that encouraged citizens to tweet or text reports of unsafe workplaces might be an effective injury reduction tool?

-- Bob Barnetson

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