OHS risks in social service organizations

In brief

  • A non-profit social service organization’s mission affects work practices and workers’ perceptions of job risks.
  • The mission can be a powerful concept in non-profit organizations, and can prompt workers to put their clients’ well-being before their own.
  • Any approach to health and safety in these workplaces should consider the well-being of both clients and workers.

Published: January 2008

Why was this study done?

Despite the personal rewards of working in non-profit social service organizations, such jobs can also be demanding. Workers may face long hours, low pay and the risk of exposure to violence and infectious diseases. Yet these settings are often overlooked as being workplaces with health and safety risks. This study explores working conditions and work-related risks in three social service organizations. It focuses on the organization’s “mission” – its purpose and value of helping marginalized clients – as a concept that affects workers’ willingness to take and accept workplace risks.

How was the study done?

The author completed nearly two months of direct observation at three non-profit organizations in Toronto: a homeless women’s drop-in centre, a drug treatment agency and a men’s homeless shelter. She also conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 workers and six individuals in management positions.

What did the researcher find?

An organization’s mission affects work practices and workers’ perceptions of job risks. Workers invoked concepts of dignity and justice in accepting the risks they took so that they could better serve or help clients. Workers emphasized the importance of “going the extra mile” when it came to clients. They downplayed any adverse working conditions relative to problems in their clients’ lives. When they did speak about job risks, workers tended to cite frustration with social systems or the trauma of watching their clients suffer – both congruent with the mission of their work.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

The study is among the first to treat non-profit organizations as workplaces that can pose health risks for employees. This is an exploratory, qualitative study carried out by a single author and, as such, the results are subject to interpretation.