Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic

A new way to think about safety

When we think about safety, images of hard hats and safety vests come to mind. But safety is more than that – it’s about creating and maintaining a work place in which the worker feels physically, mentally and emotionally safe.

“The conversation about harassment and bullying has been dominating news cycles for months now. And, while important, the public focus is primarily on the entertainment industry and corporate offices,” says Jessica Baldwin provincial facilitator for Women in Trades and Technology (WITT) at Saskatchewan Polytechnic. “We need to address this in the trades and talk about creating harassment and bullying free workplaces.”

According to Baldwin, more women are choosing the trades as viable career options and more companies have adopted diverse hiring practices. This means that more women are building careers in fields that have typically been considered as “man’s work.” 

“There has been a shift in the trades to consider safety a priority,” says Baldwin. “However, we need to make sure that ensuring our workplaces are harassment free is part of the safety culture we are building.”

Defining Harassment

The Government of Saskatchewan Occupational Health and Safety Division defines harassment to include “any inappropriate conduct, comment, display, action or gesture by a person that constitutes a threat to the health or safety of the worker.” This definition also extends to sexual harassment, which is “conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is offensive, unsolicited, or unwelcome.” This can include a wide range of behaviours from displaying pornographic or sexually explicit materials to unwanted comments, jokes or propositions to refusing to work with someone because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation.

“A lot of people think of harassment against women as typically being sexual in nature, but in the trades, women are often bullied or harassed just because they are women,” says Baldwin. “The goal in thinking about workplace safety is to help employers cultivate inclusive workplaces so that harassment of any kind does not take place.” 

Across Canada, in every province and territory, harassment in employment is illegal. All workers have the right to work in an environment where their dignity is respected, and they are free from harassment. Baldwin says that it is up to everyone — employers, unions, employees, victims and witnesses — to stop harassment in the work place.

Effects of Harassment in the Workplace

People react differently to bullying and harassment. Reactions may include one of any combination of the following:

  • Impaired concentrations or ability to make decisions, which could lead to safety hazards (such as lack of attention when working with dangerous equipment).
  • Distress, anxiety, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, and/or suicidal thoughts or actions, physical illness.
  • Reduced work performance, efficiency and productivity due to poor staff morale.
  • High absenteeism rates and higher turnover, resulting in higher recruitment costs.
  • Higher levels of client dissatisfaction.

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Changing workplace safety culture

Changing the workplace safety culture to stop harassment and bullying can create a healthier and productive work environment for everyone.

“Sometimes people are not aware that what they are doing is offensive or bullying. They just don’t realize that what they are doing is wrong,” says Baldwin. “Awareness training and educational programs for leaders, supervisors, and workers teaches empathy and discusses the consequences harassment and discrimination has on a team environment. This can be a really effective and inclusive approach to changing the culture around safety and harassment at job sites.”

Baldwin says that if awareness training isn’t readily available in the area there are steps that employers can take to ensure a safe and inclusive workplace. Some suggestions she has are:

  • Develop a policy statement that addresses harassment and bullying
  • Develop and implement procedures to report and deal with incidents.
  • Train and refresh supervisors and workers regularly.
  • Develop a culture that enables bystanders to become upstanders.
  • Make sure that employees know that reporting incidents of harassment does not come with consequences.
  • Take a proactive approach in creating a respectful work environment.
  • Reference the The Saskatchewan Employment Act.

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This article was originally published in the Saskatchewan Construction Association's We Build magazine.

Published July 2018.