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Caregivers in British Columbia have scored a major victory in their fight for safer workplaces in hospitals and long-term care facilities. Members of CUPE’s B.C. Health Services Division – the Hospital Employees’ Union – established a milestone health and safety agency in the most recent round of bargaining concluded in July.

The need for action on health and safety issues couldn’t have been more clear. According to the provincial Workers’ Compensation Board, health care is the most dangerous place to work in the province in terms of on-the-job injuries – more dangerous than mining or forestry. And health care workers face more incidents of on-the-job violence than police.

It’s estimated that at any one time, fully five per cent of union members are on long-term disability claims and 200,000 days of work are lost annually. The health care carnage costs workers their health, drains millions of dollars from health care delivery and deprives Medicare of its most experienced caregivers.

And internal polls indicated that workload and health and safety issues topped membership priorities for ‘98 bargaining.

Safety a priority

HEU delegates left last fall’s bargaining conference determined that healthy workplaces would be front and centre in 1998 bargaining. At the local level, activists increased their mobilization efforts, building on three years of workplace campaigns that highlighted the costs of workplace injuries at individual hospitals and long-term care facilities. Some HEU locals used oversized silhouettes to illustrate the body part by body part costs of injury claims at their own facilities.

HEU also kicked off a series of radio ads to build public awareness of the high rate of injuries in health care. In a labour first, Cantonese language ads were included in the campaign.

The ads reinforced a central message that HEU bargainers brought to the table: major reductions in injury rates could be achieved by implementing proven health and safety programs.

It was these health and safety success stories that were featured in “Safe Work, Safe Workloads”, a video produced by HEU and broadcast on community access television and distributed to health employers, politicians and local activists. The video documented innovative health and safety programs at two HEU work sites: Surrey Memorial Hospital and Trillium Lodge, a long-term care facility in Parksville on Vancouver Island.

Working with forward looking employers, HEU activists at those sites had introduced health and safety programs that emphasized training on body mechanics, a policy of no manual lifts, new lifting equipment, higher staffing levels, shift rotation adjustments and renovations based on ergonomic principles.

At both facilities, the staffing and equipment costs were easily recovered and significant additional savings were made that could be reinvested in improving health care delivery. And HEU told employers that if the Surrey and Trillium experiments were implemented across B.C., more than $20 million in annual savings would be available to reinvest in Medicare.

“Our members put forward a convincing case for our health and safety demands,” says HEU’s chief bargaining spokesperson Chris Allnutt. “As a result, we were well positioned when we came to the table. Employers knew that solutions had to be found.”

New agency to be created

What HEU achieved at the bargaining table was an occupational health and safety accord between health care unions, health employers and the provincial government. At its core is a health care occupational health and safety agency charged with the task of developing guidelines and programs to promote better health and safety practices.

The agency will be jointly governed by health care unions and employers. The province has guaranteed the agency $11 million in funding over the next three years and expects the agency to support its operations in the long-term through savings that result from the implementation of better health and safety practices.

The agency will be responsible for developing guidelines and programs which promote better health and safety practices such as injury prevention, safe workloads, promotion of safe work practices, safe early return to work and pilot programs.

A key role of the agency will be to evaluate the effectiveness of these guidelines and programs.

“It’s a significant victory for front-line caregivers,” says Allnutt. “The OH&S Accord acknowledges our members’ call to put proven injury prevention programs to work throughout the health care system.”


Mike Old, Communications Officer, HEU