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.
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