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CUPE members are suffering injuries and illnesses from overwork. Faced with downsizing, mergers, amalgamations and cutbacks, many CUPE members are being forced to carry ever-increasing workloads.

While governments brag about ‘more efficient’ public services, a smaller workforce is cleaning more schools, caring for more patients, providing social services to more clients and ensuring that municipal infrastructures are maintained.

A dedicated CUPE workforce is being stretched ever thinner. In the process, it is enduring an increase in work-related physical and psychological injuries.

Overwork isn’t just having too much work to do or working longer hours. Employers are making CUPE members work harder and faster. They are changing and intensifying the work. In the end it all amounts to one thing – our bodies and our dignity just can’t take it.

The death of a CUPE custodian in 1997 highlighted the crisis, illustrating that there is a horrifying price to pay for overwork. Even conservative medical publications such as The British Medical Journal have sounded the alarm.

In 1996 it reported that overwork can kill and called for “government strategies and legislation to increase employment, reduce the working week, and monitor and intervene to prevent health and safety hazards at work, which include overwork.”

In Japan, there is a recognized set of symptoms for workload-related deaths. The word karoshi, which means “death from overwork”, is now accepted internationally. Karoshi is used to describe deaths or work-related disabilities due to cardiovascular attacks (including strokes and heart attacks), which are aggravated by heavy workloads.

In 1987, Japan’s ministry of labour began to publish statistics on karoshi. So far the Japanese ministry has awarded compensation for about 20 to 60 deaths each year resulting from overwork. Japanese unions say the compensated deaths are actually much lower than the number of karoshi-related deaths. They estimate that 10,000 karoshi deaths occur each year.

What does overwork include?

Overwork can take many forms. It includes:

  • working long and difficult hours;
  • unreasonable work demands;
  • pressure to work overtime (paid and unpaid);
  • less rest breaks, days off and holidays;
  • faster, more pressured work pace;
  • performance monitoring;
  • unrealistic management expectations;
  • additional, often inappropriate, tasks imposed on top of ‘core’ duties (doing more than one job); and
  • no replacements during sick leaves or vacations.

How do we see it in our workplaces?

Overwork has a wide range of consequences for workers, families and the community. Stress and the psychological and physical damage it does to workers is a consequence that most of us are aware of. Overwork also affects our quality of life.

Overwork causes a gradual wearing down of the body through repetitive physical work, including repeated unassisted or heavy lifting. The stress caused by the lack of control over our work, as well as knowing that there is always unfinished work and no relief in sight, also contributes to physical health problems.

Work overload can result in serious occupational health and safety problems, including:

  • stress;
  • musculoskeletal injuries;
  • fatigue and related accidents;
  • exhaustion;
  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • gastrointestinal disorders;
  • increased exposure to existing health and safety hazards such as noise, temperature extremes and hazardous substances; and
  • death.

What can we do about it?

Overwork is not a new issue to unions. The problems and some of the solutions date back to the early days when industrial unions organized to fight unfair production rates, faster work paces and increased injuries.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as new technologies and production techniques were introduced, unions used escalating job action and health and safety arguments to bargain for workload limits. Despite these gains, overwork has once again become a serious health and safety issue.

The adverse health effects, increased safety hazards and injuries caused by excessive workloads are evident. CUPE has a history of leading the way in public sector health and safety issues. It comes as no surprise then, that CUPE is tackling overwork head-on. Specifically, the union’s Health and Safety Branch, with help from the National Health and Safety Committee, is stepping up its efforts to prevent overwork.

To eliminate overwork and achieve sustainable workloads the following actions are needed:

  • recognize excessive workload as an occupational health and safety issue;
  • raise awareness of the health and safety consequences of overwork among CUPE locals;
  • inform CUPE members about their rights to a safe and healthy workplace, free from the health hazards of overwork; and
  • alert employers that CUPE is committed to eliminating the health and safety threats posed by overwork and increasing workloads.

Local unions must begin to work together and say NO to overwork. They should also:

  • establish that poor work organization by management is often behind overwork;
  • demonstrate that overwork and its consequences are not the fault of individual workers or the union;
  • challenge management efforts to pressure, encourage or allow employees to be overloaded at work;
  • remind employers of their obligation under health and safety legislation to take all reasonable precautions for a safe workplace;
  • pressure government health and safety officers to take seriously the health and safety effects of chronic work overload, and to devise strategies to address the problem;
  • act collectively to ensure safe workloads and working arrangements; and
  • begin local community debates about the health and safety (and social) consequences of excessive workloads.

What tools are available to us?

Local unions already have several tools at their disposal to achieve some of these changes.

  1. Joint occupational health and safety committees

CUPE members must raise health and safety problems connected with overwork at joint health and safety committee meetings and seek resolutions through these committees.

With the exception of Quebec, Alberta and Prince Edward Island, most legislation requires a joint health and safety committee where there are 20 or more workers in a workplace.

Even in those provinces, most locals have bargained the right to joint occupational health and safety committees. Joint health and safety committees legislated forums where locals can engage employers to undertake workload investigations, review problems and implement health and safety measures to resolve health and safety hazards, including those related to overwork.

Some employers will refuse to deal with the issue at the committee level. That’s where CUPE health and safety representatives on joint committees can exercise their power and show that they have the power of the membership behind them.

Given the size of CUPE’s membership, if each local was to bring the issue of overwork to each joint health and safety committee meeting, employers would be forced to deal with the problem.

  1. Questionnaires and information gathering

A good first step is for the local union to gather information on the extent and nature of the health and safety consequences of overwork. A survey questionnaire is a good starting point. There are also mapping tools to provide a true picture of the effects of overwork.

CUPE’s Health and Safety Branch has developed mapping tools and questionnaires that could be adapted for use by any local.

  1. Reporting forms

CUPE members can obtain forms from the national union to record and report health and safety hazards. The Health and Safety Branch can also provide sample overwork reporting forms. The branch is also developing forms to document the hazards and threats posed by overwork.

  1. The right to refuse unsafe work

Most CUPE members have the right or the obligation to refuse to do unsafe work. Generally, if a worker believes that a hazard or dangerous situation is likely to exist at their worksite, they must notify their employer or supervisor. They must state that they are refusing unsafe work under the health and safety legislation.

The employer and/or the joint committee must then investigate the complaint and take action. A government occupational health and safety officer usually handles any dispute over the actions or decisions.

  1. Government enforcement

Occupational health and safety legislation may not seem to address hazards posed by overwork. However, there are parts of existing legislation that could be used to compel employers to deal with overwork.

For example, most OHS legislation contains a “general duty clause” that requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for workers. The clauses on employer obligations and supervisor responsibilities can also be used.

CUPE locals can call on government inspectors to investigate and issue orders where employers are refusing to deal with overwork hazards. Locals can report that the employer is violating the legislation by failing to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

  1. Legislative Change

Language on overwork needs to be incorporated into health and safety legislation across the country. Today health and safety legislators are reluctant to deal with overwork and several workload-related consequences.

For example, the unwillingness of governments to deal with occupational stress and musculoskeletal injuries – often caused by overwork and the poor organization of work – must be addressed by CUPE.

We must call for the development and enactment of preventative occupational health and safety legislation on workload.

In addition, adequate workers’ compensation must be provided for overwork injuries. Most workers’ compensation boards either do not allow claims for stress-related illnesses or have policies that make such claims almost impossible to pursue.

Legislative demands should include:

  • prohibitions on overwork;
  • effective ergonomics legislation that deals with work equipment, work environment and work organization;
  • the clear right for joint occupational health and safety committees to investigate and resolve workload/overwork-related health and safety complaints;
  • the clear right to refuse to work in situations where overwork/workload compromises a worker’s health and safety or the health and safety of another person; and
  • workers’ compensation for workers injured or made ill by overwork

Is there contract language?

Fair and reasonable workloads and pace of work are also issues that can be addressed through collective bargaining. When bargaining health and safety language around workload, the main goal should be a concern for prevention.

A good measure for effective language would be that workers can also accomplish at the end of a workday, what can be done comfortably at the start.

The right for joint health and safety committees to undertake investigations and recommend solutions can also be part of a health and safety collective bargaining strategy.

We can also negotiate language that entitles the worker to refuse a work assignment when it violates standards of professional responsibility, is dangerous to health and safety, exceeds the job description, or otherwise breaches the collective agreement.

British Columbia’s Hospital Employees’ Union (CUPE-HEU) and the B.C. Health Labour Relations Association have negotiated a clause that confirms the joint occupational health and safety committees’ mandate to investigate and recommend solutions to workload-related health and safety problems. It says:

The Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee shall have as part of its mandate the jurisdiction to receive complaints or concerns regarding workload problems which are safety-related, the right to investigate such complaints, the right to define the problem and the right to make recommendations for a solution. Where the committee determines that a safety-related workload problem exists, it shall inform the Employer. Within twenty-one (21) days thereafter, the Employer shall advise the committee what steps it has taken or proposes to take to rectify the safety-related workload problem identified by the committee. If the Union is not satisfied with the Employer’s response, it may refer the matter to the Industry Troubleshooter for a written recommendation.

CUPE locals can also consider the following clause:

Clause XX

  1. All employees shall have the right to a satisfactory work environment, free from unnecessary workplace stress. The employer will take steps to ensure that there is no unreasonable workload imposed on an employee.
  2. The Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee shall have as part of its mandate the jurisdiction to receive complaints or concerns regarding workload problems, the right to investigate such complaints, the right to initiate its own investigation, the right to define the problem and the right to make recommendations for a solution. The Committee shall issue a report to the union and the employer based on a complaint within twenty-one days of receiving a complaint.
  3. Within fifteen (15) days thereafter, the Employer shall advise the committee what reasonable steps it has taken or proposes to take to rectify the safety-related workload problem identified by the committee. Any disputes arising from this clause may be the subject of a grievance.