Electrician Ergonomic Research Study - 2006. Prepared for Physicians & Health Care Providers. Ergonomic Research Study - 2006.
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1985 I was working for the Ontario Public School Trustees Association as a senior Labour Relations Officer in charge of research and negotiations for 54 school boards in Ontario. That’s when the Worker Compensation Appeals Tribunal was established and a new area of law was emerging.
In 1986 the leading case regarding the definition of accident involved a sewing machine operator and whether her carpel tunnel syndrome was an accident under the law. The Tribunal reviewed the legal definition of accident, as the workers CTS was a cumulative trauma, not a traditional accident. The Tribunal ruling embraced and clarified the concept of disablement or an injury emerging gradually over time. It set in motion profound changes in the area of workers compensation that affects all workers to this day, regardless of sector.
Looking backing, I remember how complicated that decision was for employers and workers in understanding the concept that a worker could have a “work injury” without necessarily having had an accident. The release of Decision #79 forced the Ontario WCB/WSIB and labour and management stakeholders in Ontario to reset their thinking regarding the definition of accident. It was a complicated decision that had profound implications, particularly for construction workers.
Ironically, at the same time, the late brother Wally Majesky’s seminal report (“the 1987 Ontario Task Force Report on Vocational Rehabilitation”) was tabled in the Ontario Legislature. It introduced for the first time, among other reforms, mandatory vocational rehabilitation or retraining for injured workers. These two important changes continue to this day, benefiting working people. But none more than construction workers who historically have no seniority or job security provisions in the traditional industrial relations context.
My presentation today on the LU 353 Ergonomic Study is an outgrowth of my professional experiences representing Local 353 members with their workers compensation claims. When Joe Fashion hired me in 1998, our local was reasonably sophisticated regarding workers compensation. We represented our members with their myriad issues and disputes, but as time progressed, the complexity, and frequency, of certain issues required a new approach. Before I started, we had used legal counsel to argue Tribunal appeals and judiciously selected which cases went to appeal. Today, we take forward any case we feel merits a hearings. Access to justice is a non-issue for L.U. 353.
However, as time went on, it became painfully obvious to me that we needed to add to our tool kit when filing claims, arguing cases and obtaining medical reports and other forensic and epidemiological research. As the person responsible for processing member claims and arguing appeals, I grew frustrated having to use a WCB job description for electricians and ad hoc physical demands analysis generated from other cases. In fact, we continue to use a WCB job description for an ICI electrician. In essence, we (labour/management) were like cobblers with holes in our shoes.
As the largest IBEW Local in Canada, I recognized after several years we didn’t have all the tools, but we muddled along. This same criticism applies to the employer community. I saw what the contractors brought to the table. There was a paucity of information and a profound lack of resources, such as: job descriptions, research, physical demands analysis and ergonomic information. After a 100 years of brotherhood, there was a real need to progress in this area.
In the area of workers compensation, advocates need good epidemiological research, job descriptions, task analysis, ergonomic assessments, and physical demands analysis, so we can provide a snapshot of your job to a doctor, workers compensation board or appeal forum, thereby assisting them to make comparisons, and informed decisions, regarding the types of injuries that are associated with certain work demands. The bottom line is causation or causality.
There is no doubt that it was the IBEW in Ontario that took the initiative in the area of ergonomics, not the contractors - in spite of our well entrenched model of mutual gains and joint labour management cooperation. When it comes to workers compensation, I believe the employer community is more focused on lost time injuries and developing programs that protect their bottom line. This is not a knock, but a reality.
To illustrate this point, we have all heard or seen employer PR Advertisements trumpeting they have ZERO LOST TIME injury claims after 1 million man hours. Think about that very carefully. They are not saying they have ZERO injuries, but they have not had to pay out a claim. Or more accurately, the worker has not received a payment from Workers Compensation. While that PR pitch has a soothing motherhood and apple pie ring to it, beyond that slogan, that’s where the battle begins between injured workers and employers.
In the area of workers compensation where I practice, it’s amazing that in almost 10 years, the employer community has never been on our side of the table arguing a case - While the union has often supported their claims for cost relief (ie., SIEF). Make no mistake, workers compensation is adversarial, notwithstanding our heavy investment in labour/management partnerships at other levels of our mature bargaining relationship. However, when it comes to workers compensation, workers and employers, have uniquely different interests.
When it comes to workers compensation claims, there is an employer culture that seems adverse to compensation claims. In fact, this comment applies to all industry sectors, not just construction. I’m sure the delegates in attendance from other provincial jurisdictions probably have the same experience. That’s not to suggest we don’t have good employers who respect and uphold their obligations to their employees. Because we have a lot of good employers. In my experience, employers have an agenda which is largely driven by cost containment. The reality is workers compensation can be expensive on their bottom line. However, we are in the membership business, and must protect our members interests. This reality makes for an elusive mutual gains solution.
While I have addressed the issue of employer costs, lets reflect on the cost impacts using Local 353 as an example, as we self-fund our union health and welfare plan. You can imagine the potential liability we face when legitimate work injuries are not processed through workers compensation, but paid for by the union disability plan and the members hourly contributions. My friends, the economics and costs would boggle your mind regarding this un-defended border between WCB/WSIB and our union health and welfare plan. We are a large local and those costs are very real and tangible. It’s not just the claims we win on appeal, but the claims we keep outside of sphere of the union disability plan that are staggering.
The new battle front in worker’s compensation law is epidemiological research. Remember, 50% of the claims filed by electrical workers are not accidents, but injuries that emerge gradually over time. These are called disablements or MSDs. In other words, it is the physical demands of our work that constitutes the injuring process or mechanism of injury. And this tends to be poorly documented, and inadequately understood by our members, contractors and the health care professionals who treat them. Thus, the issue of causation or causality, is a constant problem in the area of workers compensation.
In April 2005, Local 353 held the first of its kind Occupational Health Clinic. A summary is contained in the Ergo Study. OHCOW was also commissioned to complete a musculoskeletal discomfort/symptom survey of our membership. The focus of the survey included basic demographics and MSK discomfort in various body parts, assessment of level of discomfort, and frequency of discomfort. Most respondents were from the ICI sector (81.3%). OHCOW found that within the last year (or time of survey), an average of 50.35% of reporting union members experienced work related aches & pain. However, remained outside the sphere of the WCB system.
As the LU 353 workers compensation consultant for the past 10 years, I noticed a lack of ergonomic information related to electrical workers. In response, I prepared a needs analysis directly focusing on workplace injuries and preventative injury measures, which highlighted the need for updated job descriptions that included a task analysis and physical demands description (PDD). Current PDD information on file at the Local was incomplete and lacked a consistent structure that could be presented to health care professionals and appeal forums.
In 2006, flowing from our Occupational Health Clinic research findings, Local 353 in cooperation with the Toronto Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (“OHCOW) commissioned an ergonomic research project to examine the work of LU 353 electricians in the five electrical sectors: ICI, Low Rise Residential, High Rise Residential, Line Utility & Traffic, and Communication.
Over the years, Local 353 had compiled an assortment of job descriptions and PDDs for each of the five trade sectors. The PDDs were generated through WSIB cases and Ad Hoc work site reviews, and not through union initiation, so that each PDD had a different structure making them hard to compare. The PDDs and job descriptions were also a number of years old and did not reflect recent changes and growth in the trade sectors.
Updated PDDs, along with task analysis is useful in a number of ways. Consistent job descriptions, task analysis and PDDs in all sectors will enable union members and their health care professionals to better understand the physical demands normally experienced in the various trade sectors, and the relationship between work and certain types of injuries. For most laypeople the only experience they have with electrical work involves in-home wiring. Although that is one aspect of electrical work, electrical work is much more broad and varied. Limited knowledge of electrical work is not a basis to make prognostications regarding return to work or opinions on causality.
After reviewing various PDD templates used by OHCOW and Local 353, we selected a template from the Government of Manitoba’s safety database. The selected template was comprehensive, from a secure and reputable source, covered a detailed amount of information, provided a structured template that was similar in scope to WSIB templates and was a two-page form. These are at the back of the green book.
As Early and Safe Return to Work is the guiding goal in Ontario Workers Compensation, updated ergonomic literature will also enable supervisors and health care professionals to better identify acceptable work for “back to work” placement after an injury. This has become a major theme in Ontario. The 6 research studies can also be used to educate workers and employers, proactively reducing injury risk. The goal of our Ergonomic project was to generate current task analysis for each job activity with photographs illustrating the work being done and to generate PDDs for the five electrical trade sectors.
The eight key job demands originally slated to be reviewed included the following topics: pipe bending, slab work, overhead work, installing heavy cable, use of handheld manual tools, use of handheld power tools, working on ladders and kneeling and crouching. Further review of literature revealed connections between topics that lead to topics being combined and the total number of papers decreasing to six.
Data collection was completed sector-by-sector beginning with Low Rise Residential. Low Rise was reviewed first because the work follows a similar pattern day to day, allowing those collecting the data to work through their learning curve before attempting to document a sector with more daily variance.
It was emphasized to contractors and workers that we were not measuring individual performance, rather, how the actual work was physically performed. Workers were also asked open-ended questions in relation to their jobs. Using this technique allowed workers to respond with their own opinions and minimized the questioner to guide or direct the answers. As an example - “at the end of the day, how does your body feel?”
Data collecting included photographing and video recording work being done. When observing a worker, it was imperative to monitor body mechanics first and task steps second. Any questions regarding steps or body mechanics could be reviewed by examining the film or photographs taken on site. This eliminated incorrect observations due to false memory retrieval.
Height measurements, timing of tasks and force measurements were also taken. Measures taken with the force gauge, stopwatch and measuring tape were done three times, with the average of the three measures being recorded. Using the average provides a more realistic measurement by minimizing recording effects of an extreme nature.
Data collection also included recording major job tasks and their associated steps. Employee experience and knowledge was used to clarify important job tasks and steps. Only major job tasks were recorded so that the document could be used by a majority of employees within each sector.
Once data collection was complete, the tasks were written up and briefly analyzed in accordance with up to date occupational health and safety literature, specifically focusing on NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) and CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety) guidelines, which are used by the WSIB and most provincial workers compensation boards. A photograph that clearly illustrated the main task was also incorporated into the analysis.
With the completion of research in 2006 and the printing of the Ergo Study in February 2007, we moved to the next phase. Local 353 printed 11,000 copies and distributed one to every member, and our 1,700 retirees. Members were instructed to bring the report to their family doctors and request that the report be placed in their patient file for future reference in the event of a work related injury with unknown etiology (ie., no accident history).
Since the release of our report, there has been tremendous interest both inside and outside the construction industry. In addition to the Ministry of Labour embracing the Local 353 Ergo Study, a number of faculty departments have requested copies, not to mention other unions who are just beginning to turn their minds to the subject. While the IBEW study is by no means revolutionary, we are the first building trade affiliate to undertake such an initiative, and other the trades are now looking to initiate a similar study in their own jurisdiction.
Within our labour community, there were some voices who claimed that 80% of the electrician claims were occupational disease. That may have been the case in some jurisdictions where the predominate industry is chemical. From where I was standing in Toronto, I disagreed, and said that Occupational Disease was perhaps 5-10%, Accidents 45%, and Disablements 45%. I was singled out for criticism. However, the Ministry of Labour has recognized that 50% of the injury claims are RSI or repetitive strain injuries. This confirms what I have been saying regarding our experience in Local 353.
To that end, the Ontario Minister of Labour has tasked the Inspectors to police not only Occupational Health & Safety violations, but also ergonomic violations. This represents a huge shift in the inspectorates mandate. At the very moment in time when the Minister of Labour was giving his inspectors new marching orders regarding the need to police for ergonomics, the Local 353 Ergonomic Study landed on his desk. The MOL Director of Occupational Health & Safety’s immediate response was to embrace the IBEW report and distribute it to the inspectors in the field as one of their tools to identify unsafe ergonomic work practices in construction.
The Construction Safety Association of Ontario in March 2007 issued a news release “Electricians: Something You and Your Doctor Should Know.” They stated:
Does your doctor really understand the physical demands of your job and the health risks that come with it? IBEW Local 353 produced a research study for electricians to give to their doctors. The study focuses on ergonomics and muskuloskeletal disorders (MSDs) which are usually less obvious injuries with less obvious causes than a burn or broken arm. The study will help doctors assess the root cause of an injury and make informed decisions about the type of activities the worker can do when returning to the job.
Since the release of the Ergo Study we have received very favourable feedback from our members, their health care professionals and other stakeholders. It is particularly rewarding when our members who work for many branches of government, including the Electrical Safety Authority, praise the union for its pioneering work. And as Joe Fashion stated in the forward – As your Business Manager, it makes me proud when we do the right things for the right reasons.