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When safety takes root: prioritizing greenhouse health and safety

When safety takes root: prioritizing greenhouse health and safety

This story is republished with the permission of Greenhouse Canada. It was originally published in January 2022 edition.

It's a good time to be a Canadian grower. Activity is rising across the greenhouse sector, and while growth is almost always good, emphasis on employee wellbeing, and the health & safety (H&S) programs to protect them, become increasingly important "The greenhouse sector has seen significant growth in Ontario at a rate of 5 per cent per year but also experiences one of the highest rates of lost time injuries (LTIs) in the agriculture sector," says Kristin Hoffman, a consultant with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS).

According to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), Ontario's agriculture sector had the highest rate of LTIs from 2012 to 2018 and was second only to transportation in 2019. "While business is good, and many operators are taking these issues to heart, there is still a need to take a closer look at how the industry is upholding its health and safety obligations."

Risks taking root

Greenhouse work comes with risks that can take a physical and mental toll. Common risks include:

  • Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), which are injuries to muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs caused by repetitive actions, static postures, constant standing, and other poor work habits.
  • Heat exhaustion and fatigue, resulting from hot outdoor temperatures and tiring work.
  • Bodily injuries, due to falls or equipment misuse.
  • Stress and anxiety, triggered by extended working hours, language or cultural barriers, or recent pandemic issues.

These common, yet preventable injuries were identified in the Greenhouse Risk Assessment Project,

a collaborative effort by WSPS and the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development,

to frame and address the health and safety risks within the greenhouse sector. This study, combined with further research, revealed critical gaps in knowledge, awareness, and training, as well as root causes associated with those risks.

In Canada, a third of the greenhouse sector's 16,000-plus workforce is comprised of foreign workers; individuals who at times arrive with inadequate health and safety training that goes unrecognized due to cultural and language disconnects.

"For example, there are some places that bring in workers who only speak Spanish. And while some will translate pertinent documents and training for them, there are others who don't," notes Jay Remsik, a WSPS consultant who has seen these language barriers first-hand. "Taking the extra step to tailor this information can definitely pay off."

Competing priorities can also pull focus away from worker health and safety, including audits, other regulations and keeping up with demand. That's not to say safety is ever a low priority, but it can sometimes take a backseat. Moreover, adds Remsik, "There can be a mindset amongst some growers that, ‘I'll worry about health and safety when an inspector shows up.' The risk with that is if you are not investing in H&S and a critical injury or fatality occurs, it could result in a significant fine if charges are laid. A proactive approach eliminates that risk."

The cost benefit of H&S

H&S programs are proven to protect greenhouse operations from financial and reputational damage, as well as contribute greatly to a company's overall sustainability.

First, says Remsik, when an incident occurs, you want to be able to show the Ministry and other stakeholders that you did everything in your power to prevent it. "Take anti-fatigue mats, for example. At $250 each, some employers might not want to make the investment for everyone on the pack line, even though those mats will go a long way toward easing risks of back problems. But they need to consider the benefits of less fatigued, more productive workers who feel valued as opposed to running the risk of a back injury and having a claim on their hands. Evidence shows every dollar spent on ergonomics can yield a $6 to $19 return."

According to a 2019 report by Mustard et al., the average employer in Ontario spends approximately $1,300 per worker per year on occupational health and safety. Annual expenditures range from $600 per worker in the educational sector to more than $4,400 per worker in the mining sector. Agriculture including forestry, fishing and hunting comes in at $890.

Costs supporting injured workers can add up as well. According to a report from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada, the average administrative cost of an LTI claim was $14,563 in 2019. This, combined with the average benefit cost of $32,675, equaled $47,238 for the life of the claim. Indirect costs, such as expenses incurred to recruit and retrain replacement workers as well as lost productivity, are more difficult to quantify and dependent on many variables but they are at least two times that of direct costs.

"Investing in health and safety means investing in business continuity," says Hoffman. "Recruiting, training, and retaining workers is no small expense, and it's already tough to bring workers into the agricultural field." Losing any one employee can have a significant impact on productivity and the ability to meet shipment obligations.

There are reputational considerations as well. Word of incidents can spread, leaving a negative impression on labourers and customers.

"The big customers look back at incident history and claim history, and if they see that you are not a high or a safe performing employer, they might not buy your product," Hoffman adds.

Last but far from least are the social advantages. As Hoffman and Remsik have witnessed time and again, greenhouses that make health and safety a priority are the ones that benefit from happier, more engaged, and loyal teams.

Leading by example

Across Ontario, there are proactive greenhouse operations keeping health and safety front and centre. Great Northern Hydroponics is a 70- acre facility that grows a variety of tomatoes for the Village Farms label. Thanks to a multi-pronged H&S program led by Xiomy Moreno, Human Resources Manager, the operation has been successful in lowering injury rates across the board.

"Like everyone always says, if you take care of your employees, they'll take care of you," says Moreno. "Our employees are very important to us and providing them with a healthy work environment is our utmost priority."

Their approach includes extensive and multilingual orientation, training, and regular meetings. Safety is championed at all levels of leadership and by a joint health and safety committee (JHSC) comprised of reps across every department who wear specialized shirts to identify them on the floor.

Combined with a program for employees returning to work post-illness or injury, supporting injured workers, and an annual survey, which keeps all H&S stakeholders on target, Moreno reports their organization is seeing a marked difference on workplace morale, and business operations: "We've seen a big reduction in our injuries, which in turn, comes with reduced loss of earnings (LOE) and potential WSIB premiums." From 2016 to 2019, reductions in workplace injuries ranged between 38 to 66 per cent.

Jeffery's Greenhouses has also seen quantifiable benefits from its health and safety focus across its two Niagara facilities. And like Great Northern Hydroponics, the key to success has been buy-in across the company.

"I took over the health and safety file about 20 years ago when accident rates were high and we were up for a Workwell (WSIB) audit," recalls Gina Marchionda, controller with Jeffery's Greenhouses Inc. "Fortunately, we were able to build a health and safety program and get management buy-in to the point where we avoided that audit and really started turning those numbers around."

In the years that followed, Jeffery's Greenhouses was able to reduce its WSIB accident costs by about 95 per cent and receive rebates of approximately 10 per cent of its insurance premiums during that time, which it funnels back into training and resources (e.g. PPE).

Building a culture of health and safety has led to stronger employee relationships as well. According to Allison Beekhuis, Manager, Human Resources at Jeffery's Greenhouses Inc., "[Our program] has helped us create a good reputation within our company and out in the industry. [Recently] we had someone come in and thank us for everything we had done [on COVID precautions], and how they feel safe and supported when coming to work. That's not the first employee to say something like that, and it's led to people referring others to come work for Jeffery's."

Beekhius and Marchionda say creating this culture has taken time and resources, but the payoff is worth it."It can be time-consuming to develop these policies and keep our H&S training and initiatives going, but ... it's far better than dealing with an accident."

This success is being replicated at Medisun Inc., an Ontario-based medicinal cannabis grower, where reduced LOE and a stronger team have been attributed to holistic training and awareness programs, a JHSC, regular meetings, and continued H&S investments.

"Because we invest as much as we do into our health and safety strategies and team, our staff trusts that we're doing everything we can to protect them. As a result, they're more positive, more engaged, and more willing to come to us with new ideas, issues, or concerns," says Jessica Welch, Director Human Resources Operations with Medisun Inc., adding, "Nobody shies away from health and safety. Everyone feels free to bring up a health and safety issue because they know it will make their work even safer. And because we have everyone on board, we actually welcome MLTSD audits; for us, it's a free opportunity to find out how we can be doing even better."

Welch reports that their strong reputation has also attracted a wealth of resumes and generates positive word of mouth among potential recruits. Investing in "train the trainer" programs has equipped supervisors with the tools to act quickly and decisively within their departments.

Like her peers, Welch says maintaining its H&S program is an expense, but it's one that pays off in peace of mind. "We know these investments save us time and money in the long run because we have fewer injuries and a team that keeps raising the bar for health and safety practices."

Nourishing H&S Programs

At the end of the day, creating a safe workplace is an ongoing commitment that can yield significant benefits. Investing in health and safety is good business and a business that is protected can grow.

"We see a lot of good actors out there, but there is still an opportunity to improve some of the general understanding around health and safety responsibilities, accountabilities, and rights," says Hoffman. "We've learned a lot from operators and the Ministry, and we're eager to help greenhouse stakeholders understand their challenges and potential solutions. At the end of the day, though, the only way we're going to bring those incident numbers down is if the sector commits to prioritizing H&S and joins us at the table."


The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.