Precarious Employment and the Internal
Responsibility System: Some Canadian
Published as Chapter Six, “Precarious Employment and the Internal Responsibility System: Some
Canadian Experiences” with Marlea Clarke & Alice de Wolff, in Workplace Health and Safety:
International Perspectives on Worker Representation. David Walters (ed.) Palgrave Macmillan
Wayne Lewchuk, McMaster University
Marlea Clarke, McMaster University
Alice de Wolff, McMaster University
The formal recognition of worker representatives as agents in regulating workplace health and
safety took place in most Canadian jurisdictions in the late 1970s. This was one component of
the transition to an Internal Responsibility System that included mandated Joint Health and
Safety Committees, right to know regulations, and the right to refuse dangerous work. Very little
has changed in this regulatory framework in the ensuing three decades. The effectiveness of
these regulations in improving health and safety was contentious in the 1970s and continues to be
debated. Earlier work by Lewchuk et.al. (1996) argued that the labour-management environment
of individual workplaces influenced the effectiveness of worker representatives and Joint Health
and Safety Committees. In particular, the framework was more effective where labour was
organized and where management had accepted a philosophy of co-management of the health and
safety function. The Canadian economy has experienced significant reorganization since the
1970s. Canadian companies in general face more intense competition because of trade deals
entered into in the 1980s and 1990s. Exports represent a much larger share of GNP. Union
density has fallen and changes in legislation make it more difficult to organize workers. Non-
standard employment, self-employment and other forms of less permanent employment have all
grown in relative importance. This paper will present new evidence on how these changes are
undermining the effectiveness of the Internal Responsibility System in Canada with a particular
focus on workers in precarious employment relationships. Data is drawn from a recent
population survey of non-student workers in Ontario conducted by the authors.
The authors would like to thank Ashley Robertson who helped with some of the initial research for this chapter and
Andy King who helped inspire the original project. We would also like to thank Robert Storey for sharing his
extensive knowledge of the evolution of the Internal Responsibility System in Canada and Dale Brown for her help
in the final preparation of the text. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and the Lupina Foundation
funded the project.
Worker Health and Safety Representatives and the Internal Responsibility
System in Canada
In most Canadian jurisdictions, the legislative recognition of worker health and safety
representatives and the transition to the Internal Responsibility System took place in the late
1970s. Much has changed in the Canadian economy in the ensuing three decades. Many
Canadian companies face more intense competition because of the Free Trade Agreement and the
North American Free Trade Agreement that opened Canadian markets to Mexican and American
companies. With trade liberalisation, Canada’s economy has become more export-oriented. At
the same time, union density has fallen and changes in legislation and workplace organisation
make it more difficult to organize and represent workers. Labour markets have also changed.
There has been a growth in non-standard employment and, in particular, self-employment and
other forms of precarious employment. This paper will explore how these changes have affected
the efficacy of worker health and safety representatives and the Internal Responsibility System,
and, in particular, how effective the system is in protecting the health of those in precarious
To understand fully the effectiveness of the Internal Responsibility System in protecting the
health of workers in precarious employment relationships, it is important to understand how this
system came to be in Canada, the immediate health and safety concerns it was designed to
address, and changes to the system since the late 1970s. Prior to the mid-1970s, the emphasis in
most jurisdictions in Canada was on protecting workers’ health via government regulations
enforced by government appointed factory inspectors, sometimes referred to as the External
Responsibility System. Growing dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of this system, and
labour’s limited role in both the drafting and enforcing of health and safety regulations led to
calls for more participatory rights for workers. The initial push for change came less from the
ranks of senior union officials and more from a group of young activists working within
workplaces and supporters working on the fringes of official unions (Storey 2005). These young
activists began making health and safety a priority within the union movement and, supported by
political allies in government, succeeded in getting several Canadian jurisdictions to pass new
health and safety regulations in the mid-1970s.
The call for change was strongest in unionized and male-dominated sectors such as mining and
heavy industry. Most of these workers were employed under standard employment contracts in
jobs that were full-time, permanent and relatively well paid. Workers were concerned about a
range of health and safety issues related to work, but at the forefront were exposures to toxic
substances including sulphur dioxide gas, asbestos, silica, radon gas, and violent accidents in
underground mines or in steel mills. The health and safety concerns of those in precarious
employment relationships were addressed only where they were similar to the concerns of this
largely male, unionized full-time industrial workforce. Workplace hazards such as stress,
harassment and employment insecurity were barely on the radar screen at this time.
, the passage of Bill 70 (Occupational Health and Safety Act) in 1978 mandated the
formation of Joint Health and Safety Committees in most workplaces, required most companies
to allow worker health and safety representatives, gave workers more rights to know about the
hazards they faced, and gave them the right to refuse dangerous work. Most other provinces
In Canada, responsibility for regulating workplace health and safety is largely a provincial matter, although certain
classes of workers are regulated by federal legislation.
adopted similar legislation. Unlike in some countries, both workplace joint health and safety
committees and worker health and safety representatives were mandatory in most workplaces in
most Canadian provinces (O’Grady 2000; Tucker 2003 & 2007). Worker representatives were
either to be elected by the workers or selected by their union.
To a significant extent, the Internal Responsibility System became a substitute for the External
Responsibility System. Assuming there was sufficient common interest between labour and
management in the goal of improving worker health and, assuming they had given workers the
tools to participate, the government felt less urgency to regulate directly through the passage of
detailed regulations or to enforce existing regulations through workplace inspections. The
government preferred a ‘hands-off’ approach for letting labour and management sort these issues
out. Evidence of this can be seen in the decline of government regulated workplace inspections
in Ontario by the mid-1990s to less than one-third of their level in the early 1970s despite the
growth in the economy (Tucker 2007).
From its inception, the Internal Responsibility System in Canada gave labour limited influence
over health and safety matters at the workplace. The product of extensive labour agitation during
the early 1970s, it was nonetheless a compromise. The 1970s round of health and safety
legislation weakly defined the right to know and limited Joint Health and Safety Committees to
“consultative and advisory” roles. The effectiveness of these instruments, from the perspective of
workers, was always contingent on how much pressure labour could apply and this was almost
always a function of how strong their union was (Lewchuk et.al. 1996; O’Grady 2000; Storey &
Tucker 2006). On paper, Joint Health and Safety Committees were to have access to information
associated with potential hazards and actual accidents, had the right to be present when a
government inspection took place, and were to participate in investigations of accidents and work
refusals. These Committees were empowered to make recommendations to senior management,
but the Internal Responsibility System was not meant to diminish management’s authority over
issues related to health and safety. Some view this as a dilution of the original intent of the
Internal Responsibility System (Parsons 1988). In reality, the breakthroughs on paper were much
more limited in practice when workers tried to assert their rights to a safer workplace. A series of
conflicts over health and safety in the 1980s are testament to the ongoing tension between labour
and management over the issues of worker safety (Smith 2000).
The labour movement’s interest in harnessing the energies of the health and safety activists who
had led the charge in the 1970s and operated at the edges of the formal labour movement, and the
activists’ frustration with the legislation and the lack of progress on health and safety issues,
shaped a second wave of health and safety legislation and regulations (Storey & Tucker 2006).
Federal legislation strengthened the right to know with the creation of the Workplace Hazardous
Materials Information System (WHMIS) in 1988. WHMIS provided a standardized labelling
system for "controlled products", the provision of material safety data sheets for over 400,000
substances, and worker education and training programs on how to deal with hazardous
substances. Two years later, changes to Ontario regulations made joint health and safety
committees mandatory at more workplaces, required committee members to be trained, and
empowered certified committee members to stop work which was perceived to be dangerous.
More critical to understanding the current state of the regulatory systems was the creation of new
bipartite organizations jointly administered by employers and union officials that gradually
shifted the focus of health and safety regulation away from the shop floor. In 1987, the Liberal
government in Ontario created the Joint Steering Committee on Hazardous Substances bringing
together representatives of labour and management with the goal of rewriting exposure standards.
The Workplace Health and Safety Agency, a joint labour management body to oversee health and
safety training in Ontario, was created in 1990. These initiatives had barely begun to function
when a new right wing Conservative government was elected in the province in 1995. With the
goal of reducing the footprint of the state and the influence of organized labour, the
Conservatives either abandoned, or seriously weakened these initiatives in bipartite regulation.
Labour mobilization limited further scaling back of organized labour’s role in regulating health
and safety. The government backed off from disbanding the Occupational Health Clinics for
Ontario Workers and from reducing the inspectorate by twenty percent.
By the late 1990s, this brief moment of bipartite regulation was largely over. Although the new
government had little interest in making labour a partner of any sort, it did not completely vacate
the workplace health and safety arena. Workplace health and safety inspections actually
increased during these years as did the value of fines assessed against employers. Some have
argued that the increase in the number of inspections had more to do with inspections becoming
less comprehensive and the adoption of a policy of blitzing all firms in industrial parks in a day
(Tucker 2007; Storey and Tucker 2006). The introduction of the practice of allowing inspectors
to deal with work refusals over the phone in 2001 further weakened the role of the government
agents in Ontario in supporting workplace efforts to manage health and safety (Storey and Tucker
On the surface, the regulatory framework of the Internal Responsibility System was largely
unchanged by the shift to a more conservative government in Ontario. However, other changes
took place that resulted in greater reliance on employer self-regulation, a lesser role for
government intervention and a weaker commitment to worker participation (Storey & Tucker
2006). These changes were the product of both the heightened global competition facing
Canadian companies and the ideology of the new government intent on dismantling the
mechanisms of government regulation in the economy and society in general. The labour
movement found itself unable to respond in the way it did in the 1970s. Storey and Tucker
attribute this in part to the impact of changes during the brief period of bipartite regulation that
had de-politized the health and safety movement and weakened its rank and file support (Storey
& Tucker 2006). Bipartite regulation had meant that health and safety discussions moved outside
the workplace between appointed union officials, experts and management delegates. To quote
Storey and Tucker:
To the extent that the successes of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) movement
crystallized in bipartist institutions and forms of education and training, they reoriented
OHS activists and trade union officials away from the rank and file and the union local and
towards paid union staff and a centralized OHS education/training model and delivery
service. In these ways OHS was removed from the workplace-figuratively and literally-and
plunked down in classrooms where, critics of this evolution charge, the political content of
the courses has been replaced by an emphasis on the technical and scientific bases of health
and safety. (Storey and Tucker 2006: 180)
Other Canadian research supports the view that the focus of the Internal Responsibility System
was moving away from workers as active participants. Comparing results of questionnaires
completed in 1990 and 2001, Geldart et.al 2005 argue that senior managers had become less
likely to view worker participation as important in improving safety, and that workers felt that
management cooperation on this issue had declined. The same research suggests that
management was becoming more active on committees, more likely to attend meetings, and were
assigning more senior managers to the process. They concluded, “Management now perceives
workers as less (rather than more) important for helping them make decisions, while workers now
see their joint involvement in company programs as more (rather than less) of a problem for
management.” (Geldart et.al. 2005: 234)
The Internal Responsibility System was adopted in Canada at a unique moment in time. The
labour movement was near its post-war peak in terms of influence and the standard employment
relationship was widespread. Workers in a number of sectors of the economy felt sufficiently
secure that they were willing to demand changes to protect their health, and a cluster of activists
beyond the labour movement supported these demands. However, even at its peak, the new
system improved conditions only somewhat and only for some workers. Where unions had
effectively organized workers or where management was willing to co-manage the health and
safety function with workers, the Internal Responsibility System had the potential to reduce
injuries (Lewchuk et.al.1996; O’Grady 2000; Levesque 1995; Tuohy & Simmard 1993). Recent
research has suggested that even with a union in place, only some Joint Health and Safety
Committees are effective. Committees that focus on a technical scientific mode of operation and
cost-benefit trade-off arguments were found to be less effective than what were called
“knowledge activist” committees. Health and safety representatives in activist committees gather
their own information on risks, place more emphasis on worker knowledge and are more likely to
mobilize co-workers to support demands (Hall et.al. 2006).
However, for many workers outside of the organized labour movement or working at firms where
management kept a firm grip on management rights, the shift from “external” protection to
“internal” participation had more limited effects. The small gains in participatory rights came at
the cost of a general retreat by the government from its role as regulator. As general economic
conditions weakened in the 1980s and the 1990s, and as the labour movement was forced to
adopt a more defensive position, the limits of the Internal Responsibility System became more
apparent. Against this background, changes currently underway in the Canadian economy are
likely to diminish further the capacity of joint workplace committees and worker representatives
to protect the health of workers. As the next section will outline, one of the most contentious and
far-reaching changes in the labour market is the erosion of standard employment relationships
and the growth in less permanent precarious employment.
The Internal Responsibility System and Precarious Employment
The concerns of unionized, male workers in standard employment relationships were central to
the introduction of the Internal Responsibility System in the late 1970s. As discussed above,
even for these workers, the new health and safety regulatory system had serious limitations.
While this class of workers was somewhat typical of the Canadian labour force in the 1970s, this
is much less so today. Today, less than two-thirds of Canadian workers are in standard
employment. Various economic and policy developments over the last three decades have altered
the context under which workers are seeking to protect their health. One key factor is the
liberalization of Canada’s trade regime that largely began with the free trade agreement with the
United States and culminated in the lowering of trade barriers with China and other countries.
Trade liberalization has exposed Canadian companies to more external competition while at the
same time making Canadian companies more reliant on export markets. In 1970, less than one-
fifth of Canadian GNP was destined for the export market. By 2000, this share had peaked at over
forty-five percent of GNP (Statistics Canada 2007). During the same period, union density fell
by almost one-quarter from a peak of nearly forty percent of the non-agricultural workforce in the
mid-1980s to around thirty percent by 2007 (Commission for Labor Cooperation 2003; Human
Resources and Social Development Canada 2007). In addition, workplace restructuring, such as
sub-contracting and outsourcing, combined with legislative changes that have restricted and
reduced union rights have made it more difficult to organize new members and ensure legislative
protection is extended to all eligible workers.
Of more relevance to this paper are the changes in the structure of Canadian labour markets. The
proportion of the workforce listed as self-employed has more than doubled since the mid-1970s
and now represents over fifteen percent of the workforce (F.H.Leacy 1983; Fudge, Tucker &
Vosko 2002; Statistics Canada 2008). Part-time employment has increased and now represents
about one-fifth of all employees, double the proportion working part-time when the Internal
Responsibility System was first introduced (Statistics Canada, 71-001). Finally, there has been a
dramatic increase in the prevalence of temporary employment, rising from around fourteen
percent of the workforce in the late 1980s to twenty percent by the mid 2000s (Vosko 2007).
This trend is not unique to Canada and, as fewer people are employed full-time in permanent
employment relationships, researchers have begun asking how non-standard forms of the
employment relationship are impacting existing health and safety outcomes and the efficacy of
health and safety regulatory frameworks introduced under a different labour market context. This
research suggests that workers in precarious employment relationships are likely to face a number
of factors that both increase the risk of injury and illness, and make existing regulatory
frameworks less effective in protecting their health at work (Walters 2000; Quinlan 2000).
The characteristics of precarious employment almost certainly increase the risk of injury and
illness at work. It is generally accepted that an important predictor of lower injury rates is a
stable and experienced workforce (Tuohy & Simmard 1993; Shannon et.al. 1996; O’Grady
2000). As employment becomes less permanent, tenure and experience with a given employer
tends to fall, thereby increasing the risk of injury and illness. Precarious employment can also
mean employment at multiple worksites and constantly changing tasks and working
environments. Legislation regulating exposure to toxic substances assumes a single employer
and does not deal effectively with exposures accumulated at multiple workplaces. Perhaps even
more problematic, given the rise of non-permanent and self-employment in Canada, are the
exclusions and weaker levels of health and safety protection extended to some workers in
precarious employment relationships (Lippel 2006; Bernstein et.al. 2006). In some cases, entire
classes of workers such as the self-employed are excluded or sectors where precarious
employment is particularly prevalent, such as agriculture or domestic work, are not covered.
Also critical to understanding the efficacy of the Internal Responsibility System in protecting the
health of workers in precarious employment are differences in the labour relations context of
those in precarious employment relative to permanent full-time workers. Workers in precarious
employment relationships are less likely to be unionized and less likely to have an ongoing
relationship with either an employer or a group of co-workers. It has already been argued that the
labour relations context plays an important role in shaping the effectiveness of the Internal
Responsibility System. Rights are only effective if workers have the power to demand employers
respect their rights. Unions, and solidarity amongst workers, make it possible for workers to
exercise their limited rights under the Internal Responsibility System including the right to refuse
dangerous work and the right to take advantage of employee representatives in health and safety
matters. Lower rates of unionization and weaker ongoing links to co-workers make those in
precarious employment relationships more vulnerable to retribution for defending the rights
granted by legislation. As summarized by O’Grady:
Without the protection of a grievance system, few workers will be inclined to exercise their
statutory right to refuse to perform unsafe work. Similarly, only a small minority of non-
union members of health and safety committees will summon inspectors to rectify
persistent non-compliance with standards. While near universal unionization was not a
presumption of the internal responsibility system, widespread unionization - at least in high
incidence sectors - was an unstated premise of that system. Indeed, trying to understand the
system of internal responsibility and the role of the right to refuse without recognizing the
central importance of unions is like trying to put on a production of Hamlet, but leaving out
the ghost. . . . For an increasing number of workers - increasing both absolutely and
relatively - the unstated premise of the internal responsibility system, i.e., the presence of a
union, no longer holds. (O’Grady 2000: 191).
In a series of papers examining health outcomes of workers in precarious employment
relationships, Quinlan (2000) suggested that those in precarious employment relationships:
were less likely to receive job training and health and safety training;
lacked job specific knowledge;
experienced either covert or overt increases in workload;
lacked knowledge and bargaining power to protect their health; and
were more likely to face work and family incompatibilities. (Quinlan 2000: 182)
In a study of Swedish workers, Aronsson (1999), reported that workers in precarious employment
relationships were less likely to be knowledgeable about their work environment, felt they were
less likely to receive training and felt it was more difficult for them to be critical at work.
The remainder of this chapter will use data from a recent a study on the health impacts of
different types of employment relationships conducted by the authors to better understand the
overall effectiveness of health and safety legislation in light of employment changes. Three
questions will be explored.
Do workers in precarious employment face different work-related health and safety risks?
Can workers in precarious employment assert their right to know through health and
safety training and access to information? and,
Can workers in precarious employment exercise their right to participate in health and
safety matters at work?
To answer these questions, data collected through a fixed response, self-administered
questionnaire conducted between September and December of 2005 are used (Lewchuk et.al.
2008). The questionnaire measures the physical conditions of work, the characteristics of the
employment relationship and health outcomes for workers. The questionnaires were solicited
from 60 Toronto area census tracts representing 145,109 households. All households in the
selected census tracts received a multilingual postcard inviting all members of the household over
the age of 18 who had worked in the previous month to participate. Participants were offered
$10.00 for completing the questionnaire, which they could mail in, submit by e-mail, or complete
online. Questionnaires were available in English, Chinese and Tamil. Posters with tear-off
information sheets were posted in public spaces in the targeted areas to encourage more
individuals to participate. Those who completed the questionnaire were asked to distribute
additional postcards to people they thought might be interested in completing the questionnaire.
Approximately 100 interviews with a random selection of survey participants in precarious
employment relationships were conducted.
The analysis in this chapter uses the 1,854 surveys received from households in the Greater
Toronto Area representing non-full-time students who worked for pay in the last month. It
includes surveys from individuals who described themselves as employed under one of three
employment relationship categories including:
Less permanent employment relationships (n=316) defined as employed through a
temporary employment agency or on a short-term contract of less than one year.
Employment could be either full-time or part-time, but in either case the relationship is
Self-employed without employees (n=167); and
Permanent full-time (n=1,371).
The first two categories represent workers in precarious employment relationships. Those in less
permanent relationships view themselves as employees, either full-time or part-time, but all
working in a relationship that has a degree of non-permanency. Approximately one-third of this
group worked less than 30 hours a week in the last month. The self-employed did not self-
identify as employees. However, it would be incorrect to see them as employers or
“entrepreneurs.” They are a class of low paid contractors, working on their own many of whom
are actually in disguised employment relationships. Nearly forty percent worked less than 30
hours a week in the last month. Our interest in this paper is to compare the experiences of full-
time and part-time workers in precarious employment with the experiences of permanent full-
time employees. Given this focus, the 148 permanent part-time workers in the sample are not
part of the analysis.
This paper’s focus is the association between employment relationship type and the effectiveness
of the Internal Responsibility System. Three compounding factors were included in the analysis:
sex, race and employment sector.
Relative to Canada as a whole, the sample is representative of
men and women, over-represented in racialized visible minorities, and has similar employment
sector characteristics as the economy as a whole. There was strong evidence that the
employment relationship had an independent effect on many of the variables reported in this
paper, even after controlling for these three factors. This was less true of sex and race, which had
an independent effect in less than one-third of the variables reported below. The remainder of
this chapter reports results by employment relationship type, for men and women separately. We
do not report findings by race or employment sector in detail, but comment on them where
The sample was divided into ten employment sectors: management, administration, science related occupations, health
care, education and the public sector, retail and hospitality, construction, manufacturing and transportation, and
Characteristics of the Sample by Employment Relationship and Sex
Table 1 reports the characteristics of the sample and how individuals with different characteristics
were distributed across the three types of employment relationships. There were marginally more
women (52.1%) than men (47.9%) in the sample. Of some interest, the percentage of men and
women overall in less permanent employment and permanent full-time employment was almost
identical to the percentage of men and women in the sample as a whole. Men were over-
represented and women were under-represented in the self-employed category. Factoring in race
results in a more complex pattern. Whites were over-represented in the self-employed category
and under-represented in the less permanent category however; the experience of white men and
white women was different. White men were under-represented in less permanent employment
and over-represented self-employment. For white women it was the opposite, with white women
over-represented in less permanent employment and under-represented in self-employment. The
same distinction was not found for men and women from racialized minorities. For this group
the distribution of both men and women across the three types of employment relationship was
virtually identical to their prevalence in the sample as a whole. These results indicate that while
overall, men and women work in precarious and permanent relationships in the same proportion
as men and women are represented in the sample, this masks a difference between white men and
white women. White women are marginally more likely to report working in a less permanent
employment relationship and white men are marginally more likely to be self-employed.
There were differences in the age profile of the three employment relationship categories. Men
and women under the age of 25 were over-represented in less permanent employment and under-
represented in self-employment and full-time employment. Men and women over the age of 50
were over-represented in self-employment, while men and women between the ages of 25-50
were over-represented in permanent full-time employment. However, it is important to point out
that over half of those in precarious employment were still between the ages of 25 and 50.
Education buffers men from both forms of precarious employment. Men with a university degree
were over-represented in permanent full-time employment and under-represented in less
permanent and self-employment. A university degree was less effective in buffering women
from precarious employment.
Table 1: Sample Characteristics by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Under 25 years of age
Over age 50
Do workers in precarious employment face different work-related health and
Injuries and workplace fatalities are certainly linked to employment in dangerous work and
exposure to physical hazards. Similar to research findings reported by Quinlan (2000) and others,
our study found that those in precarious employment relationships seem to face different work-
related health and safety risks than their counterparts in permanent employment relationships.
This is particularly true of men. As Table 2 shows, men in precarious employment relationships
were more likely to report hazardous working conditions than men working in permanent full-
time employment. Men in less permanent relationships were more likely to report working with
toxic substances, working in noisy environments, and working in uncomfortable temperatures.
Men in self-employment were more likely to report working with toxic substances. Women in
all employment relationship categories generally reported less frequent exposure to physical
hazards than men. The differences between women in precarious employment relationships and
those in permanent full-time employment were also smaller. Self-employed women were less
likely to report working in uncomfortable temperatures, perhaps because of the large number of
home-based self-employed women.
Finally, men and women in less permanent employment relationships were more likely to report
working in pain than men or women in permanent full-time employment or the self-employed.
These findings raise questions about the ability of workers in less permanent relationships to take
time off to recover from the more demanding working conditions they face. Workers in less
permanent employment are as likely to report their physical workload is too heavy or their work
pace is too fast as permanent full-time workers, but they are almost twice as likely to report
working in an awkward position at least half the time.
Multiple regression analysis
revealed that most of the associations discussed above continue to
hold even after controlling for sex, race and employment sector. Sex was independently
associated only with use of toxic substances and race was not associated independently with any
of the other indicators. This is a powerful observation. It suggests that even after correcting for
type of work and key individual characteristics, the employment relationship continues to
influence exposure to physical hazards.
Table 2: Exposure to Physical Hazards by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Used toxic substances at
least ¼ the time
Work in noisy
environments at least ½
due to air quality as
least ½ the time
Work in uncomfortable
temperature at least ½
Work in pain at least ½
the days last month
Table 3 examines the relationship between the employment relationship and work-related stress.
Men in less permanent employment were as likely to report tension at work as men in permanent
employment, and more likely to report exposure to harassment and conflicts due to multiple
employers. Women in less permanent employment were less likely to report tension at work, as
likely to report being harassed at work, and more likely to report conflicts due to having multiple
employers. Self-employed men and women were less likely to report being tense at work or
being harassed at work but they were more likely to report conflicting demands due to having
multiple employers. Although a longer discussion of the issues surrounding self-employment is
beyond the scope of this paper, it is interesting to note that a number of those in self-employment
reported having high levels of control over their work and this appears to be reflected in measures
Findings from multiple regression analysis are based on a model as follows: variable x=f(employment relationship, sex,
of workplace stress.
This relatively privileged group of workers have found a way to benefit
from labour market flexibility and to be buffered from some of the more negative consequences
of precarious employment.
Multiple regression analysis revealed that after controlling for sex, race and employment sector,
the employment relationship continued to have an independent association with all three
measures of stress in Table 3. Both sex and race had an independent effect on harassment at
work. Women and whites were less likely to report being harassed at work. The finding that
women were less likely to report being harassed at work, after correcting for the form of the
employment relationship, suggests that workplace harassment is strongly influenced by the power
relationships implicit in the employment relationship and that this affects both men and women.
Table 3: Exposure to Stress and Harassment by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Tense at work at least ½ the
days last month
Harassed at work in the last
Multiple employers create
Stress associated with harassment at work and the uncertainty linked to multiple worksites may
be a potential health risk for workers in precarious employment. This became particularly
apparent in our interviews. The health impacts of chronic stress and an individual’s limited
ability to address health problems linked to stress underscore the fact that protecting workers’
health is about much more than occupational injuries and disease. A number of our study
participants described how the insecurity of precarious employment relationships affected their
An accountant in his early forties working on short-term contracts reported:
I don’t get enough sleep because I don’t know what happens from day to day. But I know
I’ve got chest tightness sometimes from stress. I’ve got a friend who calls me every day to
ask me how I’m doing but I say I’m okay. But you know deep down that you’re not.
You’ve got all this worry that you look for jobs and there’s nothing there for you. I haven’t
seen a doctor in a number of years. Because I’m afraid to find out what a doctor might tell
me. #2493, May 2006
A nanny in her fifties who reported being self-employed described her concerns as follows:
For a longer discussion of stress and different forms of the employment relationship see Clarke et.al 2007 &
Lewchuk et.al. 2008.
No benefits. No sick days off, no overtime. My husband has a factory job . . . but his
income isn’t enough, I must also have a job. I’m always thinking about money. I don’t
sleep well, I wake up at 2:00 thinking about money…. I feel very stressed all the time. I
think about money. Mentally, it is hard to deal with. You get so stressed you want to yell.
#5621, June 2006.
Quinlan (2000) has argued that the shift to less permanent employment creates new workplace
risks associated with a greater sense of workplace disorganization. Our findings lend some
support to this hypothesis. As reported in Table 4, men and women in permanent, full-time
employment are less likely to change jobs and more likely to work in familiar locations than
those in precarious employment. Multiple regression analysis revealed that the employment
relationship, after controlling for sex, race and employment sector, continued to have an
independent association with both of the characteristics in Table 4. Women were less likely to
work in unfamiliar locations than men; however, race had no independent association with these
Table 4: Exposure to Disorganization by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Average job lasts six months or
Work in unfamiliar locations
Several workers we interviewed noted the range of problems associated with high levels of
workplace disorganisation, such as their lack of knowledge or access to safety equipment, a lack
of specific training on workplace hazards, and fragmented levels of authority or supervision. For
example, a contract worker in his twenties employed through a sub-contracting arrangement with
an internet cable company told us that he frequently worked without adequate safety equipment
or knowledge of safety issues. He reported:
I needed ladder hooks to hook onto cables on the poles, they didn’t have the hooks for the
ladders. And they were supposed to have a safety harness for climbing up the poles and
they didn’t provide that either. There was a lot of safety equipment they didn’t really
provide. … So, I had my ladder up against a cable strand on the poles and one of the cables
broke and almost fell. So that was very scary …. It would have been a 30-foot fall. #5208,
Overall, the findings reported in Tables 2 through 4 suggest that both men and women in
precarious employment relationships face hazardous working conditions more frequently than
men or women in permanent full-time employment. For men, the most serious risks appear to be
physical risks, harassment and disorganization, while women report a high frequency of pain at
work and disorganization. For the self-employed, physical working conditions are comparable or
even better than those reported by permanent full-time employees. They are the most likely to
report working in unfamiliar locations but the least likely to report tension at work or being
harassed at work.
The next section of the paper explores the efficacy of the Internal Responsibility System in
protecting the health of precarious workers exposed to these higher work-related health and
Can workers in precarious employment assert their right to know through
health and safety training and access to information?
One of the central pillars of the Internal Responsibility System is the right to know through
training and access to information on hazardous substances. Table 5 suggests that workers
overall are not well informed about the hazards they face and that this is particularly the case for
workers in precarious employment. Barely half of the men and women employed in permanent
full-time positions reported receiving health and safety training at work. For those in less
permanent employment, barely one-third of the men and just one-quarter of the women received
health and safety training. The percentage of the self-employed receiving health and safety
training was closer to one in five. Survey respondents were equally poorly informed about the
toxic substances used at work. Just over half of the men employed in permanent full-time
positions who regularly use toxic substances received information on them. The percentage of
men in precarious employment receiving information on toxic substance was closer to one-third.
Just over half of the women employed in permanent full-time positions received information on
toxic substances. Self-employed women who reported using toxic substances were the least
likely to receive information on the substances they were using.
Multiple regression analysis revealed that the employment relationship, after controlling for sex,
race and employment sector had an independent association with both variables in Table 5.
Neither sex nor race was independently associated with receiving health and safety training or
receiving information on toxic substances. With the exception of management and administrative
occupations, employment sector was also not associated strongly with the prevalence of health
and safety training or being informed about toxic substances.
Table 5: Health and Safety Training by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Received H&S training at
Received information on
toxic substances at work (If
working with toxic
Can workers in precarious employment exercise their right to participate in
health and safety matters at work?
A second pillar of the Internal Responsibility System is the right to participate in health and
safety matters at work. The findings from the study suggest that the ability to exercise this right
is in doubt for a large number of workers, particularly for men and women in less permanent
employment relationships. Given the importance of worker participation for the effective
functioning of the system, the limited ability to raise safety concerns or participate in a
meaningful way in health and safety discussions certainly raises questions about the effectiveness
of the entire system.
As Table 6 demonstrates, about one-third of the workers in our study reported that raising a
health and safety issue or making a compensation claim would be at least somewhat likely to
affect negatively future employment. For men and women in less permanent employment,
almost half reported raising a health and safety concern would likely affect future employment
with their employer and over half reported making a health and safety compensation claim would
have negative employment effects. An even larger percentage of workers reported that raising
employment rights might affect future employment, with both men and women in less permanent
employment the most likely to indicate such an action would affect negatively future
employment. It is hard to imagine men and women in less permanent employment aggressively
exercising their right to raise health and safety concerns, seeking compensation for an injury, or
defending employment rights given the high level of concern they have regarding the
implications of such actions. For self-employed men and women, the potential impact of
asserting their rights was less of a concern.
The survey findings also indicate significant constraints on workers’ views regarding their ability
to exercise the right to participate to improve health and safety conditions at work. Less than half
of the entire sample reported that raising a health and safety issue would result in change half the
time or more, less than a third reported it would lead to change most of the time, and less than
one in ten reported it would lead to change all the time. Combined with concerns reported above
that raising health and safety issues might affect negatively future employment prospects, this
raises doubts about the overall effectiveness of the right to participate in Canada. For those in
less permanent employment, the right to participate is even more limited. These workers are
more likely to be concerned that raising a health and safety issue will affect future employment,
but are less confident that raising a health and safety concern will lead to change. Indeed, less
than one in three workers in less permanent employment reported that raising a health and safety
issue would lead to change half the time or more, barely one in five reported it would lead to
change most of the time, and less than one in twenty reported it would lead to change all the time.
The self-employed were the least likely to be concerned about raising health and safety issues and
the most confident that raising them would lead to change.
Multiple regression analysis revealed that the employment relationship, after controlling for sex,
race and employment sector, had an independent association with all of the variables in Table 6.
Unlike previous tables, both sex and race had an independent association with these variables
with the exception of sex and the effectiveness of raising health and safety issues where men and
women were equally likely to report raising such issues was unlikely to lead to change. Women
and white workers were less likely to report that raising health and safety concerns, making a
compensation claim, or raising employment rights would affect employment negatively. White
workers were more likely to report raising a health and safety concern would lead to change.
With the exception of management and administrative occupations who were less likely to report
possible negative effects from exercising health and safety rights, employment sector had almost
no association with these indicators. These findings confirm that the form of the employment
relationship influences the effectiveness of the Internal Responsibility System and that those in
less permanent relationships enjoy the least protection. However, even after accounting for this
effect, the system appears to have less potential to resolve health and safety issues for non-white
workers and men. The latter is a surprising finding and perhaps reflects the increased exposure to
foreign trade of male-dominated sectors of the economy.
Table 6: Right to Participate by Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Raising H&S concern at least
somewhat likely to affect
negatively future employment
Making WSIB claim at least
somewhat likely to affect
negatively future employment
Raising employment rights at
least somewhat likely to affect
negatively future employment
Raising H&S will lead to
change at least ½ the time
Interviews with several study participants revealed the vulnerability of workers in precarious
employment relationships. A middle aged women working through a temporary employment
agency and diagnosed with carpel tunnel syndrome by her doctor reported:
I’m not [wearing the brace] because I’m afraid . . . Like if anybody sees me I do cry out in
pain because it does hurt but I purposely am not going to wear the brace that I have. And
as I said to my mom, even if I do go to the doctor and it does require something, I’m not
going to be able to do it until I’m working full-time anywhere. #5178 June 2006
A young worker working on a series of short-term contracts at a local beer store reported his
reluctance to apply for workers’ compensation despite being injured at work.
I just all of a sudden realized that I had a hernia . . . I thought about running it through
workers comp, but I’m like, as much as they tell ya that that’s not gonna affect your
employment, that’s gonna affect your employment. … if I took time off for any claim
through workers comp, I just, I just didn’t think it was gonna bode well . . . Actually I’ve
never really known anyone who’s gone through workers comp. I just don’t think it bodes
well. I think employers see that. I know they say they don’t, but I don’t believe that.
#2698, June 2006.
Even when injuries occur, those in precarious employment are reluctant to report the injury. The
same worker described what happens when someone is injured as follows, “no report was written
up, like no, like you’re always supposed ta…, but no report, I’ve hurt myself a few times. Like I
whacked my face off a shelf, I could barely see, but no report’s written up. I don’t know, its just
kinda weird how they ah handle stuff over there.” #2698, June 2006
Another worker on short-term contracts indicated that being injured likely meant the end of
I was what was referred to as a special skill actor. I would actually do the work essentially
of what stuntmen would do because they’re sporting movies and since I have a sporting
background I was able to do that. So there’s physical labour, and a good chance I’ll get
injured on the job, so they hire people like me that have experience and, sort of, if they get
injured and they just bring in more people. So we’re expendable labour. # 5449, June 2006.
Table 7 reports findings on levels of support at work. It is generally accepted that the rights
associated with the Internal Responsibility System are most effectively exercised when workers
have the backing of a union and co-workers. It was noted above that union density rates in
Canada have fallen in the last two decades and that legislative changes and competitive pressures
have limited union capacity to act on behalf of their members. Less than one-fifth of workers in
the study reported being union members at all places of employment. Unions are virtually absent
in the self-employment sector. Men in less permanent employment were less likely to report
having a union than men in permanent full-time employment. The difference in unionization
rates of women in precarious employment and those in permanent full-time employment was
Unions are still able to help workers even when they are not members. Interestingly, men in less
permanent employment and in permanent full-time employment were equally likely to report a
union would help them. However, in both cases, less than one in four survey respondents
reported a union was there to help them if they needed it. There is also evidence that male
workers in self-employment and to some extent men in less permanent employment were less
likely to be able to call on the help of co-workers if needed. This seems to be less of the case for
women in less permanent employment who were as likely to report they could get help as women
in permanent full-time employment.
Multiple regression analysis revealed that the employment relationship, after controlling for sex,
race and employment sector, had an independent association with being a union member and
getting union help. Workers in permanent full-time positions were more likely to be members of
a union and receive help from a union if needed. White workers were more likely to report
belonging to a union.
Table 7: Support to Defend Rights under the Internal Responsibility System by
Employment Relationship and Sex (%)
Union member all
Union help at least ½
the time if needed
Help with job available
While the study did not gather any direct information on the third pillar of the Internal
Responsibility System, the right to refuse dangerous work, it is hard to imagine workers
exercising this right given concerns that using their rights could compromise future employment
prospects and the low union density rates.
The purpose of this chapter was to assess the effectiveness of employee health and safety
representatives and the Internal Responsibility System in Canada. We were particularly
interested in how the shift to precarious forms of employment was affecting the efficacy of the
regulatory system. Those in precarious employment were divided into those in less permanent
employment, which included those on short-term contracts and working through employment
agencies, and the own-account self-employed. Exposure to hazardous working conditions and
working with toxic substances on a regular basis remains a reality for many Canadians in this
study. Men were more likely to report exposure to physical workplace hazards than women, and
men in precarious employment relationships were more likely to report physical hazards than
men in permanent full-time positions. More workers in our sample reported stress-related risks
than physical risks. Here, the self-employed were marginally less likely to report tension at work.
Disorganization has the potential to increase exposure to health and safety risks for men and
women in less permanent employment and self-employment where jobs commonly last less than
six months and workers are required to work in unfamiliar locations on a regular basis.
Thirty years after the introduction of the Internal Responsibility System and the formal
recognition of worker representatives, there remain major gaps in the health and safety regulatory
system for all Canadian workers and especially those in precarious employment. Less than half
of all workers reported receiving health and safety training or information about toxic substances
they might be working with. For men in precarious employment, it was closer to one in three
who received this training and barely one in four women in precarious employment reported
receiving health and safety training. The ability to participate in health and safety discussions at
work also appears to be limited by concerns regarding the impact of such actions on future
employment and the erosion of workplace support from unions. Men in less permanent
employment were the most likely to report that taking actions to exercise their right to participate
in shaping working conditions would affect future employment negatively. Women in less
permanent employment were slightly less likely to report such concerns but still far more
frequently than women in permanent full-time employment. Less than one-third of the men and
women in less permanent employment reported raising health and safety concerns would actually
lead to change on a regular basis. Self-employed men and women generally were less concerned
that raising health and safety issues would affect their employment and more likely to report that
raising health and safety issues would lead to change.
It is obvious that the Canadian regulatory system is flawed and that changes in the thirty years
since its introduction have acted to limit its effectiveness even further. The emerging pattern of
weaker protection for those in precarious employment is a concern. There are a number of steps
that can be taken to improve working conditions. We agree with the suggestion by Storey and
Tucker that there is a pressing need to enhance the level of external regulation and increase the
role of the inspectorate (Storey and Tucker 2006: 178). Given the growth in less permanent
employment and the decline in union density, it seems unrealistic to expect worker health and
safety representatives and Joint Health and Safety Committees, as currently structured, to be
effective. Others have argued for changes to how Joint Health and Safety Committees function
including the option of imposing on employers a duty to bargain with these committees in health
and safety matters (O’Grady 2000) or giving them new authority to deal with health and safety
issues at work rather than simply advising management (Digby & Riddell 1985). Ultimately the
vulnerability of those in precarious employment needs to be faced if we are to continue to rely on
employee voice and participation at work to move the health and safety agenda forward. As
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