Breakthrough change: Finding and describing firms that make large OHS improvements

What changes, why and who’s driving the change in firms that make large improvements in workplace health and safety? Possible answers are coming from the first phase of an ongoing study at the Institute for Work & Health that is exploring the process of “breakthrough change.”

Published: October 26, 2012

Large improvements in health and safety can be driven by mid-level people within an organization, such as dedicated health and safety professionals or joint health and safety committee chairs.

This is one of the early results emerging from an ongoing study at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) that is exploring “breakthrough change”—i.e. how workplaces go from being not-so-good to good performers on the occupational health and safety (OHS) front.

While senior management support is important, we are finding that large change is often not driven from the top down, says IWH Associate Scientist Lynda Robson, the lead researcher on the study. An internal OHS advocate can be the driving force. This is exciting, because it widens the possibility of who can be the change agents in organizations.

Study explores change in OHS performance

Research has identified the characteristics of firms that perform poorly or extremely well with respect to work-related injury and illness prevention, but it hasn’t shown what it takes to go from one to the other. We wanted to explore one way of filling this research gap and focus on the change process, says Robson.

To do this, Robson first had to find workplaces that had undergone “breakthrough change” (BTC), which the study defines as large, intentional, firm-level improvement in the prevention of injury or illness. She and her team devised a method that she hopes will prove useful to other researchers and health and safety professionals and policy-makers in Ontario and beyond (see sidebar: Identifying breakthrough firms).

Working with two health and safety associations that made initial contact with potential BTC firms (Workplace Safety and Prevention Services and Public Services Health and Safety Association), Robson was able to gather information on 12 firms that, according to her definition, had undergone BTC during the period from 1998 to 2008. She presented these findings from the first phase of the study in June at the Canadian Association for Research on Work and Health conference.

Based on these 12 firms, this is what the research is showing so far about the characteristics of BTC organizations.

Multiple interventions are necessary. In all cases, the organizations introduced six to 12 distinct changes that contributed to their improvement. This, says Robson, confirms that there are no “magic bullets” when it comes to improving OHS. This isn’t surprising, given the complex nature of workplaces, she adds. The workplace is a system. You can’t expect to change only one part and affect outcomes system-wide.

Among the changes made by these BTC firms, the following were the most common:

  • improved OHS education and training;
  • additional OHS personnel through hiring or reassignment;
  • new or upgraded workplace equipment, tools and/or machinery;
  • enhanced hazard identification;
  • more active joint health and safety committee (JHSC);
  • new/enhanced return-to-work program;
  • increased use of external expertise;
  • enhanced OHS policies and/or procedures; and
  • improved OHS information systems and reporting.

The prevention system can instigate change. As for the push behind the change, the most common reason (mentioned by one third) was an intervention from Ontario’s prevention system (e.g. Ministry of Labour enforcement, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board Workwell audit, health and safety association outreach).

A mid-level OHS advocate can drive change internally. When asked to explain who was behind the change within the organization, only a sixth pointed to senior management. Most (one third) said it was an internal advocate, such as an OHS manager or worker JHSC co-chair; the rest were unsure.

Senior management needs to allow people to spend time on health and safety, or support equipment purchases or program changes suggested, says Robson. But it doesn’t look like senior management has to drive the change. It looks like an internal advocate at the mid-level can make a lot of difference.

The “how” of change up next

As part of the same study, Robson and her team took a close look at four BTC firms, digging deep into not only what changed and why, but also how. Findings from this second phase of the study are currently being compiled and will be ready to share in early 2013. Watch for more in a future At Work.