Tuesday, August 20, 2019

More OHS violations at Athabasca University

Last week, I wrote about Athabasca University’s awful new OHS training. One positive outcome of staff outrage about the training is that they are now talking openly about AU’s hypocrisy around preaching workplace safety while not taking any action on it.

For example, I recently received a bunch of photos of a tripping hazard in the library that has gone unremediated for more than a year despite repeated complaints.


The library has a set of moveable book shelves. These save space by eliminating the need for permanent aisles between the stacks. When you need a book, you crank open space between two stacks and go get it (you can see the crank system in the picture above).


The shelves travel on metal rails embedded in the floor. The rest of the floor is carpeted. The carpet has been pulling up where it abuts the rails, creating a tripping hazard (see above). In a likely related phenomenon, elsewhere the carpeting is buckling (because it is too loose), which also creates a tripping hazard (see below).


This has been a long-term issue that staff flagged for action in the summer of 2018. While it is easy to dismiss things like tripping hazards as no big deal, falls account for about 20% of serious injuries in Alberta. The vast majority of these injuries are caused by falls on the same level. These are all caused by tripping hazards and are virtually all preventable.

Initially, AU’s response was to promise to glue the carpet down. Because the carpet was normally under the stacks, this could be done only one piece at a time. Because of the smell from the glue, the plan was to do it late on Fridays over a series of weeks so the smell could dissipate over the weekend.

This was a good response. Unfortunately, after a single section was fixed, work stopped for reasons unknown (possibly because the glue didn't work). Shortly thereafter, the lifted sections were duct taped down.


This hazard control strategy is likely not compliant with s. 9 of the OHS Code which requires employers to eliminate the hazard (rather than just slap a quick fix on). Not surprisingly, duct tape was not an effective fix and has since lifted.

Staff again raised the issue in November of 2018 but there was no further action. Fast forward t this year when a staff member almost tripped. This reflects that, when going into the stacks to retrieve a book, one’s eyes are on the books, not the floor. Another complaint was lodged. Facilities was notified but, other than the (bizarre) placement of an orange traffic cone (???), no further remediation has occurred.


This lame response to a well known and identified hazard is contrary to AU’s obligations under the OHS Act. How this hazard hasn't been identified in the required quarterly walk-around inspections of the worksite by the Joint OHS Committee is unclear. The likely answer is that the inspections aren't happening as required by s.197 of the OHS Code.

The OHS Act requires workers report hazards (done!) and then:
3(1) Every employer shall ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so, 
(f) that health and safety concerns raised by workers, supervisors, self-employed persons and the joint work site health and safety committee or health and safety representative are resolved in a timely manner, and 
Pretty clearly, AU has (once again) failed to meet its obligations under the OHS Act. So what are workers to do?

Well, they could complain again. Since multiple complaints have yielded no meaningful action, that is probably useless. This dynamic (complaints being ineffective resulting in fewer complaints) is actually a well established phenomenon in the study of employment rights. It reflects that workers aren’t stupid and can accurately calculate whether filing complaints are worth their time.

The staff could also refuse unsafe work, as is their right under the Act. Workers are often fearful that exercising their OHS rights will result in (illegal) retaliation. A 2016 study of 2000 Alberta workers found that, of the workers who faced unsafe work, only one third refused the unsafe work.

When non-refusers were ask why the didn’t refuse:
32% of non-refusers indicated they did not want to be known as a troublemaker and 14% indicated they specifically feared punishment for refusing unsafe work. Supervisor and coworker pressure to keep working was cited by 16% and 14% of non-refusers, respectively (p. 8).
When refusers were asked about their experiences of refusing, only 23.8% said the employer made the work safer. Again we see the rational calculation by workers: refusals entail significant risk and have a low prospect of success.

Not surprisingly, AU workers have not (yet) refused this unsafe work. An organized, group refusal would probably be the most effective approach here. If the group held firm, work would stop and an OHS officer would need o attend the worksite.

A less risky option would be for an employee to anonymously phone (1-866-415-8690) the government’s OHS inspectors or fill out an online complaint and report the noncompliance with the Act. This will generate a site visit (eventually), a compliance order and, several months from now, maybe even a remedy. A work refusal would likely get faster results.

I would guess the most likely outcome will be that workers will take no action, try to be careful and avoid the hazard, and, eventually, someone will get hurt. This reflects that there is very littletrust in senior administration at AU, particularly around health and safety issues (and for good reason).

The odds that AU will take action to remedy the hazard (e.g., call a carpet installer to fucking fix the problem or replace the flooring) is pretty slim. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, but there you go.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Athabasca U's new worker safety training is terrible

On June 1, 2018, changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act took effect. A key change was the requirement for employers with 20 or more workers to have an OHS program. The OHS program must include a safety orientation and training for workers (s.37(1)(g)).

The content of this training is not specified beyond the requirement in ss.3(1)(b) and 3(2) that workers must be aware of their rights and duties and of any health and safety issues arising from the work being conducted.

Athabasca University failed to comply with this training requirement and received a compliance order in late 2018. In late July of 2019 (i.e., 14 months late), the university rolled out its new OHS training. Basically, AU bought access to an online self-paced training product and demanded all employees complete it within 10 days.

Hilariously, the rollout by HR looked like a phishing attack. So, as they’ve been trained, many staff deleted the email unread, and IT immediately blocked access to the website. But at least we know the IT security training is working!

When things eventually shook out, I took the training offered by AU. It is basically a online powerpoint with 118 screens, a few simple activities, and a 10-question multiple-choice test at the end. It took me about 20 minutes to read everything and complete the test (10/10!).

There are numerous shortcomings with this training. Most obviously, this training lacks any applicability to most AU employees, with lengthy sections early on about due diligence (an employer topic, focused on reducing liability for injury) and hand tools and machinery (relevant to about 3 employees). Providing clearly irrelevant training is a sure-fire way to trigger learner disengagement. You’d think this is a dynamic Canada’s leader in distance education might be aware of.

Not surprisingly, I have heard multiple reports of people getting fed up and clicking through the slides as fast as possible and just doing the activities and tests based upon common sense. Given the generic and largely irrelevant nature of the content, I don’t imagine AU cares about this. This training is clearly about making AU minimally (and finally!) compliant with the OHS Act, rather than actually improving safety or giving workers useful information or skills.

There are several places where the training clearly blames the workers for injuries and prescribes injury-prevention techniques that completely ignore the root cause of injury and the hierarchy of controls. For example, the slide below (used under fair dealing provisions) notes that equipment can cause hand injuries but the most common cause is employee error (boredom, inattentiveness, distraction).



While it is easy to identify the proximate (i.e., immediate) cause of injury, to reduce injury we have to look at the root cause. Specifically, why are employees bored, distracted or inattentive? The answer here is found in the way the employer has designed the job to make it boring, overwhelming, or disengaging. But fixing the root cause (i.e., eliminating the hazard by designing better jobs) is way harder and more expensive than simply blaming the employees.

The training then goes on to say cuts and lacerations are among the most common injuries. “This is even true of secretaries, who can be cut by paper edges and punctured by staplers, scissors and thumbtacks.” Setting aside the anachronistic term for administrative assistants, suggesting “even secretaries” can get hurt is deeply insulting.

Administrative staff are some of the most at-risk for injuries due to the repetitive nature of their work (e.g., RSIs and other ergonomic-related injuries) and their relative lack of power (e.g., leading to harassment by coworkers). This part of the training was profoundly tone deaf to the realities of Athabasca University.

The training contains a number of elements that several staff have found objectionable. For example, the slide below shows a man forcing a female to photocopy her face (I think—that’s the consensus, anyways).



This is (1) a ridiculous example of violence that (2) both obscures and trivializes actual forms of harassment and violence faced by AU employees and that (3) several workers have found extremely triggering. Is this seriously the best imagery that a professional training organization could come up with?

Similarly, the section on workplace violence is headlined by this image:



Now, I expect that many AU employees have idly fantasized about doing this. But it is not representative of the actual issues faced by AU employees. The most likely kind of violence at AU is verbal and directed at front-line and support staff (who are mostly women). I’m not suggesting that physical violence should be ignored or that women can’t act violently. The point is that this cartoonish representation of violence trivializes the issue by showing us an uncommon and frankly unlikely example.

The training does touch on the issue of working alone, which is important, as half of AU 1100 employees work from home offices. It recommends some sort of check-in procedure. Alberta’s OHS Code actually requires more than that when workers work by themselves and cannot be seen or heard by people capable of rendering help (which is the case for many AU home workers). AU is, in fact, probably in violation of this requirement. The irony of flagging working alone as a risk but AU doing nothing about it is not lost on home workers.

Moving on, the OHS Act requires employers to make employees aware of both their rights and obligations. There is a fair bit of information on employee obligations but only really two screens that deal with employee OHS rights. One lists the rights and the other briefly discusses how employees go about refusing unsafe work.

I expect this meets the minimal requirements under the Code, but it really does little to empower workers. That makes sense since employers generally don't want workers asking questions like “why is the fire hose missing?” The desire to keep workers subservient also likely explains why there is no mention of unions in the training.

The training ends with three slides addressing injury and return to work. The role of AU’s various unions in return to work (as set out in policy) is absent in the training. Further, the training mentioned requirements for communication set out in Bill C-99. I have no idea what is in reference to.

The only thing I could find was some 1996 legislation in Ontario (Bill 99, the Workers’ Compensation Reform Act). This has no application in Alberta or to Athabasca University (although recent changes to Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act may be relevant). You’d kinda think a professional training firm or AU’s own OHS staff might have caught such a basic error?

The activities and test in the training were insulting and poorly designed. Consider this activity to test whether trainees have understood the section on personal protective equipment (PPE):



Even if you have never taken any OHS training, surely you could figure out which piece of PPE is best way to protect your HAND when you handle a hot item. (Hint: it is not the boot). The question itself is deeply insulting: a grade 2 student could answer this correctly so asking adults to do it tells them that the trainer thinks they are morons. As a way to self-test workers’ knowledge, this activity provides only the most superficial indication of whether workers understand the requirement for and use of PPE.

Similarly, the test questions include things like:
  • True or false: you should check the back seat for creepy dudes before getting in your car. 
  • If the ladder is missing a rung you should: (a) fix with duct tape, (b) step-over the missing rung carefully, or (c) get it fixed.
  • True or false: It’s cool to climb up shelves if you can't find a ladder.
These questions provide (at best) a superficial assessment of worker knowledge about their rights and how to handle safety issues. Any rando at the mall could pass this test without ever having seen the training. And, indeed, that is basically what is happening with employees—people are ignoring the training because it sucks.

No one really benefits from superficial compliance with the law. Workers remain at risk and the employer will see disengagement continue to rise (negatively affecting productivity). The lousy training is just the latest issue in HR with OHS and return to work. It is probably time to clean house and bring in new staff.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Unions and the USS Enterprise

A friend passed me this 1977 song about organizing a union on the USS Enterprise (ST:TOS). The absence of unions in Star Trek (excepting one episode of Deep Space 9) is quite notable. This song moots how a Starfleet crew might be induced to organize and how this would affect ship operations.




Listen and I'll tell you a tale I've been told
Of a union organizer who knocked a starship cold They met where the stars are squattered thin out along the galactic rim And starfleet command is sorry that they ever ran into him Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Now the ship was patrolling rim stars when she got a call for aid And up come a local convoy in a hurried grim parade Saying Captain we've caught a monster whose far much for us by far So take him and throw him into the heart of the nearest star Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Just why do you need a whole convoy the Captain wished to know Three ships to guard the other less decrepit as we go Now the Captain was intrigued and he said stand by for scan But all that showed on the viewing screen was little ol'union man Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man The Captain said I can take him and he beamed the man aboard The convoy turned and raced away crying Thank the Lord Then the Captain looked him over asking just what's going on That they sent out half their trading fleet just to make sure you were gone. Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man The little old man just chuckled saying Captain don't you know My job is organizing wherever I may go And I can build a union out of anything you got And the folks that run that planet well they disliked that a lot Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man I first organized the laborers Then i unionized the clerks Then i unionized the robots that staffed the atomic works But when I organized the milk cows and led them out on strike Well you can guess what official reaction to that was like Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Amazing said the Captain but you cant do that in here My crew are loyal navy men and we've no cause for fear But he heard the old man saying as he walked out the door Captain, yano, there have so been navy unions before Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Well the Captain soon forgot him setting course for starbase five For all he saw the union man he might not ever of been alive Till a troubled ensign asked him 'is it true sir what they say? That we've got high hazard duty without high hazard pay?' Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Well the Captain couldn't answer except to say its true Starfleet could pay you better but there's not much I can do But when he woke up next morning he found out what moral was like For the bridge was filled with pickets and the whole crew was on strike Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Then the union man walked up and said I'm sorry to trouble you But your ship is now a job shop of the I-W-W-U We've sent our demands to Starfleet command and they said they'd grant us none So we're just gonna keep on sailing till this strike is won Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Now further we've decided to run this co-op style Giving everyone experience at each others job awhile We like you too much to dump you at the first starbase we see But we bolted you to the galley and this weeks command to me Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man So somewhere down in the galley you'll find poor Captain Kirk Scrubbing away on dishes swearing it'll never work And Spock as he dries those dishes says 'It might succeed I fear' And please Sir while you're washing don't splash water in my ear Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man

-- Bob Barnetson