Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Corona virus as an OHS issue

Source: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy
The developing outbreak of coronavirus got me thinking about how institutions react to pandemics. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is an interesting example to look back on.

SARS originated in China and resulted in 44 deaths, over 400 illnesses and 25,000 quarantined persons in Canada (there are slightly different stats, depending on your source). An 11% mortality rate was the global norm.

Back in 2003, when the SARS outbreak occurred, I was working at the Alberta Labour Relations Board. Right as the outbreak was becoming news (but before anyone had a handle on how SARS spread), my boss took a vacation to China.

The staff were concerned that he might bringing the virus into the workplace. The staff included folks with compromised immune systems, chronic diseases, and, in my case, a pregnant wife at home. So, basically, we were like every other workplace anywhere.

The staff met and deputized two of us to go talk to our boss’s boss (the big-boss). Our request to the big-boss was that our boss be given a couple of days off when he got back to see if he developed any symptoms before coming back to work (a pretty reasonable ask, in retrospect). The big-boss declined our request, basically poo-pooing our concerns as alarmist.

Whether that decision was consistent with his obligations under the OHS Act of the day was an open question. We talked about filing an OHS complaint or refusing unsafe work. But, since the big boss was a big wheel in government and was tight with the deputy minister of Labour, we figured a complaint was likely pointless.

Refusing might have worked, but there was a pattern of harassment in the office by the boss. He would target people and harass them until they quit. So we figured a refusal would just make the refusers the next targets, so we dropped it.

Fortunately, no one in the office was infected. But, somehow, the boss found out about our request to the big-boss. The boss then went around the hallways loudly calling the concerns ridiculous and bullshit. And that’s about when he started harassing me.

Unlike his past harassment of my colleagues (which involved publicly berating then until they quit), he chose to bury me with work. After a few months, I was carrying three times the normal file load. I’d ask for help, he’d take a file, be unable to figure out how to do the work on the file, hand it off to an admin assistant (who didn’t get paid to do high-risk work like manage files), and it would then end up back on my desk several days later with no work done. The parties involved would then start calling, pissed off that nothing had moved on their file (which is fair enough).

Over the course of two months, I simply started to burn out (e.g., exhaustion, depression, hopelessness). One concerning symptom was short-term memory loss: I would have conversations one day with coworkers and be unable to remember the conversation the next day (although the paperwork clearly demonstrated the conversations had happened). 

Eventually, I went to my GP (worried about dementia) and he was like “yeah, it’s not dementia, you just need some time off for stress.” After a few days away fro, work, my symptoms went away. So I then quit and got a new job.

Seventeen years later, I see this as a fairly typical instance of an OHS failure:
  1. Workers raise a legitimate concern about a potential health hazard.
  2. Employers waves it off because the risk is unknown (even though the potential consequence is large).
  3. Workers decide exercising their OHS rights will not likely be effective and may cause retaliation.
  4. Workers who raised the issue begins to experience retaliation, through the misuse of legitimate managerial powers.
  5. Worker is forced out of job and hazard remains uncontrolled.
This commonplace pattern is one reason why workers generally don't report hazards or injuries. That it happened at the government agency tasked with administering labour law is, perhaps, ironic but is also unsurprising. This dynamic happens everywhere—production matters more than workers. from what former coworkers told me, the pattern of harassment by the boss continued until he retired.

In the wake of the SARS epidemic, most public-sector organizations developed pandemic plans. The data I have seen suggests only about 10% of private sector organizations have such plans. It will be interesting to see how organizations handle the risk of coronavirus in light of our experience with SARS. Do they take it more seriously given SARS? Or do they ignore it until someone comes down with the illness?

-- Bob Barnetson

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