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“Risk of Harm” – The Undefined Term That May Change Your Future

December 5, 2016

If we can measure a thing we can define a thing, and if we can define a thing we can place working boundaries around such a thing in order to operationalize this thing.”
– Howe, (2016).

On November 20th, 2015, the Tony Dean Report “Supporting a Strong and Sustainable Ontario College of Trades” proposed major changes to the way the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) governs the skilled trades in Ontario. Instead of having experienced industry veterans oversee the trades, it proposes substituting a concept called “risk of harm” for use as a yardstick in determining what trades should be compulsory, and apprentice to journeyperson ratios.

The problem with “risk of harm” is that no one knows what it means. This was confirmed by an independent academic expert in the field of occupational health and safety.

When this expert, Gavan Howe, did a study to find out what “risk of harm” means to veteran and apprentice electrical and plumbing/pipe workers, trainers, and contractors and they came up with hundreds of examples of dangerous situations in today’s jobsites. This highlights how important it is to avoid making changes to OCOT until we understand what we’re changing, and why.

Howe’s findings were released in an August 2016 report entitled “1,159 Years on the Tools: What Risk of Harm means to Experts”. The academic version of this study is published in VOCED.

Electricians at work on rooftop job site

The Search Begins

Gavan Howe, Associate Professor at University of Guelph Humber, and Humber College, has specialized in occupational health and safety research for the past 14 years. When asked to prepare a report on the definition of “risk of harm”, he said that none exists – at least pertaining to healthy, well-adjusted, adult experts employed in hazardous jobs.

“Risk of harm hasn’t been studied in any scenarios related to healthy adults,” says Howe. “It’s been looked at in hospitals, the disabled, the aged, in health-care settings and as it relates to children at risk of harm.”

To begin to unpack “risk of harm” in this new context, he decided to take the issue to actual skilled trades. He interviewed 47 experts in the electrical and pipe fitting/plumbing skilled trades, and asked what “risk of harm” meant to them.

Revelations from the Report

35,000 volt cables improperly installed by a non-electrical tradesperson

35,000 volt cables improperly installed by a non-electrical tradesperson.

The picture that emerges is frightening for anyone who works in the trades, uses public facilities, or who hires contractors to work on their home.

The electrical/plumbing/pipes industry experts identified over 200 conditions that can lead to injury or damage to journeypersons, apprentices, other workers on the site, the public, property, and even equipment. An astonishing 72 responses to the risk of harm question were noted as being caused by unskilled workers who did not have the training or certification to safely do the work of pipe and electrical trades.

These dangers can lie hidden for long periods of time, potentially resurfacing years later to affect the public or workers, often when repair work is undertaken.

Examples of the consequences of shoddy workmanship abound, including that of an elderly man who was burned to death on the bathroom floor of his own home due to improperly installed infloor heating. We cover a few more examples in our article on OCOT and Tony Dean.

Situations That Lead to Risk are Complex

Even more chillingly, social pressures can change the risk scenario. For example, if an electrician is facing severe deadlines, they may be pressured by supervisors to do what it takes to get the work done, even if that means skipping steps or working with live electricity. Just like soldiers who adapt to performing under live enemy fire, some electricians get so used to working live that they even joke about it.

They may also feel personally compelled to take risks with minimal outside pressure. “Extroverts,” notes Howe, “are known to be more likely to take risks. That’s been documented numerous times.”

As Howe did his master’s thesis on the role of emotion in communication and risk mitigation, he draws on extensive research. “There are 21 causal factors that can influence why an electrical contractor would work live.”

What the recent study reveals is that risk of harm scenarios are not only numerous but astoundingly complex. They are woven into the very fabric of jobsite culture. They are difficult to define because of the emotional, cultural, and social factors.
“Harm and risk can mean different things to different people because of differences in how situations are perceived and understood,” says Howe, paraphrasing risk scholars Sjoberg et al (2004).

Competitive Climate Partly to Blame

It’s becoming more and more difficult for everyday electrical and construction contractors to stay in business. The pressure to offer the lowest price quote can tempt even the most conscientious employers to cut corners on materials and hire less qualified and lower cost workers.

Even providing an accurate quote is becoming more difficult. As David Weil’s Harvard study on “fissuring” shows, the practice of larger companies outsourcing to subcontractors plays an impact.

In the construction industry, it’s common practice now for a contractor or subcontractor to presented with incomplete design drawings on which they need to quote. They are expected to just fill in the details on the job site as well. This presents even more pressure to cut corners and potentially compromise worker and user safety in order to stay in business.

Electrical conduit improperly laid out

This photo shows a dangerous installation undertaken by an unauthorized worker: a six hundred foot cable run without any junction boxes as required by code. Note: the workers who installed this cable could not even get the pull rope through let alone the electrical cable which was to follow. This was a costly and potentially dangerous shortcut.

What About Using Accident Statistics?

It’s tempting to turn to accident statistics to get a picture of jobsite safety. And while death certificates are hard to fake, when it comes to non-fatal injuries, there are reasons that the statistics can’t be taken at face value.

“Underreporting is the elephant on the tailgate for any set of injury statistics in North America,” says Howe. “It’s a widely documented issue, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) of the United States Department of Labor confirms underreporting confounds incident data.”

The frightening fact is that, in Canada, employers are incentivized to not report workplace injuries, and to perhaps encourage employees to follow suit. We have a system in which employers are punished for telling the truth.

Howe notes, “Depending on their yearly ER, they are either refunded Workers Compensation premiums or billed additionally”. In order for contractors to simply be allowed to bid on new construction projects they must have a low injury claims experience.

This WSIB report agrees that “claim suppression appears to be a real problem. It is unlikely that claim suppression is restricted to a small number of anecdotal cases.” (Emphasis is in the original report.) Tony Dean in his 2010 report noted that incentives should be removed from the system and it appears WSIB may be moving to such a system.

There is also currently no centralized, comprehensive Canadian body that reports on accident statistics across the country. In the Risk of Harm report, Howe often used stats from the US, as they are gathered from all the states, not just one. Canada and the US are culturally similar and also have similar safety standards for electrical work.

In the US, electrocution is the number two cause of death amongst the “Fatal 4” causes of construction worker deaths in 2014, (OHSA) the other three being falls, being struck by an object, and being caught in/between items on the job site.
Electrician at work

Risk of Harm is Hard to Define and Must Include Many Factors

It may sound like a simple task to come up with a definition of “risk of harm”, but a review of the report shows that the reality is so complex that getting an accurate picture of not only what can go wrong, but how frequently these situations arise, is difficult to do. The implication is that it is therefore open to manipulation.

Impact of the Report

Since the release of “Risk of Harm”, the report has been made available on VOCED, a research database for workplace issues and topics in Australia. It has also appeared on Safe Saskatchewan and the Daily Commercial News. The report is newly released, and effects could continue rippling through the academic world for years to come.

The Answer is Simple

From IBEW CCO’s perspective, the way forward is surprisingly simple: let the skilled trades continue to determine what tasks they need to do, how to manage safety, and what work can be done by general labourers. The skilled trades know when a seemingly menial task can have safety implications for themselves, apprentices, other trade workers, and the general public, and whether this work product will be safe for use far into the future.

When there are news reports about construction workers killed on job sites, or when homeowners are injured or killed by bad workmanship, everyone is upset.
But are they upset enough to do what it takes to prevent these situations from occurring in the future? For a time, when OCOT was formed, it looked like the answer was yes. Currently, it sounds like the price of keeping our skilled men and women alive is too costly for the bottom lines of some people.

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