By Jessica Di Sabatino
I met in December 2014 with Elizabeth Witmer, the Chair of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Her exceptional leadership and career help remind me why Canada is helping to lead the way in the areas of health and safety. It is because of people like Ms. Witmer that we can expect to continue to live in a province where health and safety continues to be at the forefront of our government’s agenda, and why I believe we can be optimistic about the future of Ontario’s workforce.
Tell us some of your own personal background and why safety has become personally important to you.
Safety has always been very important to me. At the beginning of my career as a physical education teacher,it was always important for me to create a safe environment for the students.
Then, when I became the Minister of Labour, workplace health and safety became an absolute priority as a result of a visit from Paul Kells, his wife and his daughter who came to see me to share the story of their son, Sean, who was tragically killed on the third day of his part-time job. Sean was only nineteen years old.
This conversation had a tremendous impact on me, especially because Sean and my son, Scott, were the same age, and so I left that conversation determined to make workplace health and safety a top priority in my mandate as the Minister of Labour.
As a result, we developed a Young Workers Awareness Program that took us into the high schools to speak to students and educate young people about health and safety and their rights and their responsibilities at work. I believe it is important to recommit ourselves on a daily basis to making safety a priority in the workplace.
In a recent interview, Mark Ward, the CEO of Syncrude, stated that there is a direct link between safety performance, productivity, profitability and the future of our company. Can you comment on this statement?
Recently, the WSIB looked at health and safety and the impact it has on the province’s economy and we found a direct correlation. The safety performance of workplaces results in fewer injuries and this positively impacts the provincial economy and productivity.
The WSIB has launched the Return to Work program, and a new medical strategy, to help injured workers return to work safely and more quickly. Our efforts are focused on injured workers receiving the right medical care as soon as possible and helping them return to work. As a result there were over 2 million fewer productive days lost in 2012 than just 3 years before. That represents an almost $1 billion injection straight back into the Ontario GDP. That is good news for everyone and demonstrates the link to the safety performance of a company.
It is expected that more than 125,000 young people will report being injured while on the job this year. What do you think is the most effective approach to bringing these numbers down?
Young worker health and safety is a challenge. However, I believe education continues to be the key to reducing the number of injuries. That is why I established the Young Workers Awareness Program as Minister of Labour. YWAP broadened the high school curriculum to educate young people about workplace safety and their rights and responsibilities. In addition to general workplace education there must be specific training for young people before they start each new job. This means we must continually remind employers about the importance and necessity of training the young workers they hire. We must keep raising awareness of the need to keep our workplaces healthy and safe. This is where advertising and marketing campaigns are crucial to getting the message across to the general public. We must continue to search for more creative means to communicate the need of safe and healthy workplaces.
Strong leadership has always been at the forefront of every cultural movement. If a safety culture is to permeate every business across Ontario, what leadership qualities are necessary in order to make this a reality?
A culture of safety starts at the top. Today’s leaders and employers must have a strong commitment to healthy and safe workplaces and encourage employees and employers to work together to achieve that goal.
I’m currently optimistic because I believe many organizations today have leaders who are committed to health and safety. I have had the opportunity to meet with many employers across the province and have been impressed with their health and safety achievements. I have met strongly committed individuals within each of these workplaces who have worked hard and in collaboration with their colleagues to successfully reduce the number of incidences and lost time injuries and illnesses. A strong commitment from both the health and safety manager as well as the President is paramount in improving an organization’s health and safety performance.
What role do you think WSIB plays in making our province a better place to live and work?
We have a key role in making our province a better place to live and work and we do place a high priority on healthy and safe workplaces. Our Board continues to consider what more we can do to ensure that we are delivering on that part of our mandate that relates to health and safety. We work in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and the Chief Prevention Officer on the prevention of injuries and illness. We will continue to look for more opportunities to support and encourage Ontario’s workplaces to improve their health and safety outcomes to make Ontario a better place to live and work.