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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 3 . Episode 2 Brave New Workplace


Smith Business Insight Podcast

The fallout from Covid has changed how we talk about the management of workplace health and safety


Around 1,000 Canadians die each year because of safety incidents or occupation-related disease, a figure that vastly underestimates the true toll of workplace accidents. Podcast guest Julian Barling, author of Brave New Workplace, discusses how the hard-hat image of workplace safety limits our understanding of the issue, the role of unions in limiting safety incidents and the measures organizations can take to keep workers out of trouble. One the world’s top organizational and leadership researchers, Dr. Barling is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Smith School of Business. He is joined in conversation by host Alan Morantz. 


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Alan Morantz: When it comes to safety in the workplace, is the glass half full or half empty? Yes, over the past century there have been dramatic advances in workplace safety, in part because the subject has been extensively studied. But it’s also true that over the past 25 years, the number of fatalities has increased in Canada. Around 1,000 Canadians die each year because of safety incidents or occupation-related disease. And most people in the know say these numbers vastly underestimate the true toll of workplace accidents. The costs are steep not only for workers and organizations but for families and society at large. 

How do we get these numbers down? How has Covid changed how we view safe workplaces? And what proven measures are we overlooking? 

Welcome to this second episode of Brave New Workplace. I’m your host, Alan Morantz, senior editor of Smith Business Insight, and today we’re talking about workplace safety. Once again, I’m joined by Julian Barling, author of the newly published Brave New Workplace. As you’ll recall, Dr. Barling is a Distinguished University Professor and Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen’s Smith School of Business. He has some 40 years of management research to draw from, with countless studies in the field of workplace safety. 

Here is our conversation on what we know about keeping the workplace safe…and the one high-impact change he most wants to see happen. 

[Music playing] 

1:47: AM: So, just to set the table for our conversation today, when we talk about workplace safety, what are we referring to? And does it include mental health as well, for example? 

Julian Barling: It doesn’t, and I think that could be a problem. If we just think about an image that comes to mind, if we say workplace safety, like draw a picture, think of an image, I think what you’re likely to get is a hard hat. I think that’s not surprising. Organizations have been doing that workplace safety, and images like that, for decades and decades. So it’s just totally ingrained. But I think it’s a problem, and it’s a problem because when we think of workplace safety, we are narrowing the focus of what the issue is in organizations. 

Sadly, about a thousand people die and from workplace issues in Canada every year, and it’s not unusual for more than 50 per cent to die from health-related causes: work-related cancers, poisonings and so forth. And you can’t change what you don’t know. So if you think the problem is limited to physical safety incidents, we are probably ignoring half the problem. 

So I think that somehow what we need to do, certainly as researchers and so forth, is try and influence people to think more broadly. And maybe it’s a change in terminology. Workplace safety really includes physical safety and physical and mental health. But it’s doubtful whether the safety trainings, the interventions that we have and other preventive measures, are focused on this broader definition. Maybe we need to change the language that we use as the scope of what we are trying to focus on has broadened in the last several decades. 

3:46: AM: You mentioned the sort of hard hat image of workplace safety today. Is there a concern about workplace safety being confined to specific industries or specific workplaces or jobs? 

JB: There definitely are very significant differences. Just think about people who work in offices and so forth, who have what I would call the luxury and the privilege not of having no exposure but who have less exposure than people in other industries and jobs and so forth. But it’s a nuanced response. 

Are we talking about injuries or are we talking about fatalities? So if we look at workplace injuries, for example, the Canadian data would show that the one industry that stands out by far would be healthcare. I think if you ask people just to tell us which industry is most susceptible, I don’t think they would say healthcare. I think the answer you’re going to get is some form of construction, manufacturing, mining and so forth. The trouble is that we cannot change what we do not know. So from a perspective of injuries, it tends to be healthcare. Certainly manufacturing, construction, transportation are close behind. But it’s healthcare. 

If we focus on injuries, something that we have to acknowledge is that there is perhaps a large problem with unreported injuries, and injuries probably go unreported disproportionately in different industries. Perhaps most unreported injuries are going to occur in industries such as agriculture and in non-unionized workplaces. But those skew the results. So whatever the data are, they’re probably worse because there are so many unreported injuries. 

If we turn to fatalities, certainly what we need to do, and this is true of injuries as well, is not look at the numbers, but look at the rates. So the number of fatalities per the number of people working in that industry. And when we do that, again, if you ask people which would be the most dangerous industries, I think most people get it wrong. It turns out it’s transportation, and it’s probably followed by fishing and agriculture. 

Another concern would be occupations that themselves are too small to actually be reflected in industry-wide data. And one of those occupations must include journalists, in particular foreign correspondents and foreign war correspondents. I think if people became aware of the number of journalists who are being killed each year to bring us the news, I think people would be surprised. It’s typically more than a hundred per year. 

In terms of injuries, I think what we are realizing is that it’s not just physical injuries. There are psychological injuries from people who are being exposed to horrific situations, horrific incidents. Some people such as journalists work in a situation where the public are encouraged to send them pictures of traffic incidents, of explosions, of building collapses and so forth. And their job is to sort out which pictures the public cannot see. And the data suggests, for example, that post-traumatic stress disorder is really high in that group. So we need to be concerned about the industries we know about. We also need to be concerned that there are some industries that aren’t even on our horizon yet. 

7:50: AM: Journalists, okay. That its home. I wonder if there’s an issue in terms of what is being, what data are being collected and what data are not being collected. So are there aspects of workplace health and safety that aren’t being measured that should be? 

JB: I think that the aspects that are, I wouldn’t say not being collected but that we are not paying as much attention to would be psychological injuries in general. And I think the probable reason for that is they’re far more difficult to define than a physical injury. Although I must say that there can even be considerable debate over many physical injuries such as back injuries which are prevalent among healthcare workers and so forth. So yes, I think that as we expand our definition of workplace safety to include psychological injuries, we need to get to a better understanding of what constitutes a psychological injury. I think that the relevant authoritiesemployers, unions, workers compensation boards are getting there. But we are simply not there yet. 

9:12: AM: And I wonder whether we have a good idea of the costs of safety incidents. I guess we know about the financial costs of safety incidents, but are we losing sight of other repercussions for organizations or for workers, and particularly for their families? 

JB: Sadly, I don’t think that we really have a good understanding even of the financial cost of safety incidents. In a country such as Canada, where you have the kind of workers’ compensation system that we do have, companies would be, if I can use the term, penalized by having to pay higher premium if they have a worse safety record, but they still don’t bear the full costs for, you know, any one incident by themselves. It is smoothed out over an industry. 

But there is research that suggests that whatever we think the costs are, we are significantly underestimating the financial costs. But the effects go beyond employees and the organization in terms of financial costs, to affect peoples families, clearly. But they go be even beyond people’s families. So let me just give you some examples of what I mean by this. 

In cases where there’s a workplace fatality, invariably police officers or organizational leaders have to go and break the news to the family. I’ve indirectly heard from police officers and organizational leaders who have been in the situation who tell you that having had to do that stays with them for the longest time you can imagine. What we are learning is they’re simply not sufficiently trained and they don’t get the support afterwards for doing what must be one of the hardest things they’re going to have to do in their work. So an important lesson there is I think we could do a better job to help people. 

Another lesson: I think we need to see safety incidents, injuries, fatalities as more than something that just happens in the workplace but as something that spills over beyond the workplace and affects public safety and environmental safety. Some tragic but simple examples: The worst industrial accident in history was probably Bhopal in India in December, 1984, where the best estimates are that more than 3,800 people died because of a workplace safety incidence. 

Coming closer to our home, the BP Texas City refinery in 2005, there was an explosion. How bad was it? BP eventually paid more than a billion dollars in victim compensation. That’s an amount of money that is, it’s not just abstract, it’s an amount that is carried by shareholders. So it goes beyond merely the organization. In that case, a government inquiry, a third-party independent inquiry, laid virtually all of the blame on management for issues such as cost cutting management practices, cutting corners and so forth. But it affected people way beyond the workplace

Environmental safety: If I was an environmental activist, I would certainly be more focused on safety issues in the workplace. Just looking at large scale incidents, the Exxon Valdez, I think that was 1989, a workplace safety incident resulted in damage to 1,300 miles of shoreland. Hundreds of thousands of sea animals and birds were killed. Deepwater Horizon, a more recent workplace disaster: again, hundreds of thousands of sea animals and birds killed because of a workplace safety issue. I think we, as a society, we need to be far more concerned about just how bad the repercussions are of safety incidents in the workplace. 

13:34: AM: I don’t think we can talk about workplace safety without talking about unions, about the role of unions. I know in, in your book, you cite statistics that show large drops in safety incidents following unionization. So what is it about the presence of unions that leads to safer workplaces? 

JB: So this is a phenomenon that has been studied and recognized for decades and decades. And I think primarily it’s a collective voice effect. And what I mean by that is it can be really difficult as an individual to confront management and abusive supervisors, for example, and let them know that there’s an unsafe practice in the workplace. That there’s an unplaced piece of equipment that might lead to an injury. But if you have a voice, if it’s all of you, and if it’s an organized voice that it is legitimate, the company has to take note of it, you have a much better chance of resolving workplace issues, often before they occur. Because employees have these formal mechanisms, you find that management becomes far more responsive to critical activities that matter in terms of making workplace safer, such as monthly inspections, annual inspections, enforcement, keeping, keeping equipment safe and so forth. 

It’s not a popular perspective in many quarters, but I think it’s true to say that in many ways the presence of unions raises the quality of management when it comes to safety. And in what way? It’s just more difficult for management to live with unsafe working conditions. Having said all that, it’s important to, to raise a paradox. And the paradox is, we know from studies that sometimes we see an increase in injuries after the introduction of a union, but the most coherent explanation for that phenomenon is not that unions are now causing unsafe conditions, but that the new introduction of a union helps employees to feel more safe to report injuries or incidents in the workplace. And if you look at those situations, it’s typically a temporary increase in the number of injuries. 

16:17: AM: So unions as management’s best friends that will be the headline for tomorrow’s newspapers. Beyond unionization, how about the value of random safety inspections, which I understand can be very effective public policy? Although I suspect employers would disagree. 

JB: So intriguingly, when I was writing the safety chapter for Brave New Workplace, I came across a study that is not new. It’s probably 10 years old. It’s published in a very prestigious journal, the journal called Science. And I like to feel that I’m up to date with the research. I’d never heard of this article. But what they did, it’s conducted in California. It’s a statewide investigation. It’s a long-term investigation. It took place over, collected data, about five years. And they’re in a situation where it’s impossible for the government to conduct safety inspections in every workplace. So what they do is they conduct random safety inspections. So the researchers involved worked with the government, and because it was a randomized situation, we can place much greater faith in any findings that they get out of this study

And it’s really important to acknowledge the findings of the study were positive, but they were positive in more than one way. Not only do they lower the risk of safety incidents and injuries, but the reason why management typically are no great fans of random safety inspections, of having government inspectors come onto the work site and stop work while they do the inspections and so forth, is because they fear that there will be negative effects on financial performance. And what they could show over a five-year period is that there were no negative financial costs. 

So what we now know is that random safety inspections enhance safety, and at the very worst, don’t hurt financial performance, but there were some indications that may even help with financial performance. So if we take unions, if we take random safety inspectionsI feel optimistic that we can do a better job. We just to fight the urge to rail against these external authorities or bodies that may help us with inside of our organizations. 

19:05: AM: Yes. Although I imagine it would also require governments to value this and put the money, because generally I would imagine, unless we’re talking about industry-based random checks, but somebody’s going to have to make that investment. So maybe it’s incumbent on government regulators to value it a bit more. 

JB: Absolutely. And I think that what we know is in many jurisdictions, as governments feel that they’re facing cost cutting and so forth, one of the things that happened is that safety inspections and safety enforcement have gone down as those jobs that get cut. So I think we need to we need to treasure what they bring to us rather than think that this is a place where we can, in a sense, save money. 

At the other end of all of this is a large body of research that shows that injured workers often express considerable dissatisfaction in their dealings with workers’ compensation boards after they’ve been injured. I think that we need to do a better job not just to help employees. I think we need to do a better job because, to the extent to which workers comp boards and so forth do a better job, people will get back to work more quickly. 

I think that there are, again, spill of spillover effects to families. So just a quick digression. Back in the nineties when there were considerable layoffs, we did some research looking at the effects on late adolescence when parents were afraid of losing their jobs and so forth. And we could show that there were negative effects on children’s beliefs about work, on school performance and so forth. So the question is, what are adolescents learning when they see their parents suffering at home not getting the treatment they need, frustrated in the treatment they need? What are they learning about the world of work? How is this affecting their work attitudes? How is this affecting even their school performance? We found quantifiable effects on school performance. 

We need to see all these systems as more interrelated than we currently do. We currently treat them as totally separate, it’s just a safety incident. No, it’s a safety incident that affects the workers, their peers, the leaders who have to break the news, the leaders who have to manage in that environment afterwards, public, public safety, environmental safety. They’re interrelated

21:54: AM: Organizations, though, do have certain role to play, through their policies. So could you mention a couple policies, practices that either positive or negative, that are particularly impactful on safety? 

JB: Sure. So one that I would pick on, if I might put it that way, a positive is autonomy. The term that’s used in some of the research would be empowerment; basically see them as the same. We know from research that a little bit more autonomy can have a significant effect on the number of injuries at the work site. Yet if you go into organizations, a mindset that you’re going to frequently encounter is that management feels that safety is so important that we cannot leave it up to workers. And what follows from that is overcontrol, which we know counterintuitively has a negative effect on safety. We need to let employees look after their own safety, not totally, but to a greater extent than we currently do. 

I think we should be really concerned about the absence of safety training, especially for young employees and new employees. By new employees, we know that people who are recently socialized into their work are at a higher risk of incidents. And you can trace it back to a lack of knowledge. We could be making a much greater impact from safety training. We’ve known that for the longest time, and yet when you look at safety inquests after people have died, we still frequently see the finding that there was an absence of safety training. 

A practice that I think could be, could be really beneficial is, what about very young kids who are in the informal job market. I’m talking about young kids who are mowing lawns, shoveling snow, delivering newspapers in the dark, which is inherently risky. I think exposing them very early to the importance of safety and to the importance of taking precautions wearing a reflective armband, for example. If you’re mowing the lawn, I think there should be people helping them to realize, don’t do that without good running shoes and so forth. Early socialization like that may have lifelong effects in terms of an attitude towards safety. 

24:41: AM: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, or I didn’t ask about, Covid, the grand disruptor in the workplace. Has the pandemic changed how we view and talk about workplace safety? 

JB: I think I would put it this way, yes in capital letters and now yes, in uncapitalized letters. So during the height of the pandemic there was so much discussion about this. And sadly, we are already seeing that abasing to some extent. There is lots of confusion and anxiety and political rhetoric but it’s critical that we actually do engage in this discussion. 

I think that we have the opportunity if we pay attention to make significant changes. In the United States of the data that we know already, we know that in the first year of the pandemic, 3,500 healthcare workers died of Covid. And what we’re talking about now is shifting the discussion from, in a sense, safety to health. I think that thinking about the pandemic is going to erase some enormous questions as we move forward in workplace life in general. 

So as we move towards remote work, can you do a safety inspection in somebody’s house? Can a government inspector arrive, knock on your door and demand access? Can a company insist that you update your furniture to be more ergonomic in somebody’s home? What if there’s a collective agreement mandating certain ergonomic requirements in the workplace, does that spill over into somebody’s home? 

Essentially, what we are seeing is the very definition of workplace is needs to be revisited and is going to have to change. But we have an opportunity to make things a lot better than it ever was. I think Covid tells us in a very large way that we are not just dealing with safety, workplace safety, as much as safety and workplace health. I think a question that is raised for me is, what did we learn from SARS in 2000 and what will we learn now that will change workplace practices? We’re at the point where it’s either a wonderful opportunity to change health and safety management for the future or simply another lesson lost. And I’m afraid that after SARS in 2000, it was just another lesson lost. 

A specific example: I think what we learned during the pandemic, and we’re still in the pandemic, is how critical it is in the way in which we handle sickness absence. I think we’ve forgotten that already. So moving forward, I think that the organizations that are going to thrive are the ones that learn the most from the pandemic and choose to change in ways that help people be more healthy. The organizations that are going to struggle in the future are the ones that are going to try and force everybody to live as if it’s still 2019. 

28:19: AM: So if there’s been a royal edict and you could change one thing that would make significant, even an indirect impact on workplace safety, if you had that kind of power, how would you use it? 

JB: If I had that kind of power, I think the one thing that I would try and do is enforce a change in the language related to occupational health and safety. And if I can give two examples, both would really induce real change in the management of health and safety. 

So I think the first way deals with the mantra that you hear whenever you go into any organization, employees are our most precious assets. I would love that to be true, except we find that it’s not true, to the extent we would like it to be true. If it really was true,  I think what we’d find is organizations giving world-class safety training to young workers, temporary workers and whatever. I think that if employees really are our most important or precious asset, we would find occupational safety being a critical consideration in leadership selection, in leadership promotion, in leadership merit and so forth. If employees really were our most precious asset, I think we would see that safety performance would be an important criterion in CEO compensation. So I think if we could bring our actions in line with that statement and it wasn’t just something we said, I think there would be an enormous change in workplace safety. 

A second just way of speaking is I would outlaw the term accidents. Nobody would ever be allowed to use the word accident in organizations ever again. Look at the definition of the word accidents, and what we find is it’s an event, across different dictionaries. It’s an event that happens by chance, it’s unexpected, it’s uncontrollable and so forth. Some dictionary definitions will tell you it’s random and unpredictable

And yet if you go to, let’s call them incident inquiries or inquests, what you’re going find is that’s just not correct. What you’re going to find is that these inquiries and inquests tell you that the event was predictable, it was preventable. So is it just a language problem? No, I think it’s a mindset problem. I think when anybody, management, whoever uses the term accident, what we understand by that is that it’s unpredictable, therefore we can’t affect it. 

I think that we need to change the language so that it doesn’t let people off the hook. If we use the term incident, we know that we have more power over incidents that occur. I think we should also change from the term accident to incident because what I’ve seen is that the term incident is offensive to many injured workers, to not just injured workers but to workers who’ve seen horrifying events. To see people, to see colleagues, friends, family injured in the most dreadful ways, to family members who react when they’re told it’s as somebody has died in a workplace accident. I think that if we just bring our language in line with organizational reality, I think we’re going make a difference. 

AM: Wonderful insights, Julian. Thanks for joining us. 

JB: Thank you very much. 

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AM: For more on Julian Barling’s vision of productive, healthy and safe workplaces. Pick up a copy of his book, brave New Workplace, from your favorite bookseller. Brave New Workplace is published by Oxford University Press. 

Thank you to podcast producer Meredith Dault and to Bill Cassidy for editing support. And finally, for practical evidence-based insights on the organizational world and business and finance in general, check out Smith Business Insight at