Explained: The Child Welfare Worker Safety Project

Yacine Dottridge, Senior Program Analyst – Labour Relations, from OACAS explains the origins of the Worker Safety Project

What is the Worker Safety Project all about?

The Worker Safety Project is about making working conditions safer for Ontario’s child welfare professionals. When I say safer, I mean everything from guidelines for safe driving to mental health.  When workers feel safe and supported, they are better able to focus their attention where it needs to be: protecting children, youth and families.

Yacine Dottridge, Senior Program Analyst – Labour Relations, OACAS

The project has been several years in the making, with the sector’s first commitment to examining worker safety coming out of the 2011 Provincial Discussion Table. After a series of surveys and focus groups with input from thousands of staff in the sector, a report was released in 2014 indicating 46 recommendations for improving worker safety, looking at the physical work environment, work practices, technology, training, and psychosocial support. Since 2014, several OACAS groups have done work to address the recommendations, like the inclusion of worker safety modules in OACAS’ New Worker Training program. Phase two of the project just wrapped up at the end of March.

What was one of the challenges you faced with this project?

This was the first truly jointly led labour-management project I have been a part of in my career. I had no idea what the relationship among the group members would be like, and I was worried that there might be divergent interests at play. Although there were occasional disagreements—to be expected in any kind of group project—it was clear to me that everyone was pulling in the same direction, to make substantive improvements and set a common standard for worker safety in child welfare work across the province.

What were some of the highlights from the project?

I think the work on occupational stress injuries will stand out for most as one of the highlights of the project. While the original recommendation speaks specifically to PTSD, secondary trauma and resiliency, there have been some big shifts in occupational mental health in the past four years. The group wanted to make sure that the product we came out with at the end would be on the cutting edge with what is happening across Canada.

This was a tremendous learning opportunity for me to work alongside occupational mental health and safety experts to gain a better understanding of how work, the workplace, and mental health relate to one another.

What was a key takeaway from this project?

Recognizing that child protection work can be stressful, and even traumatic, this section provides guidance for agencies to address everything from workplace culture to crisis response. There is an increasing pressure on all workplaces to ensure they are safe and supportive spaces for their workers that help alleviate the stresses, challenges, and traumas workers may face through their work rather than compounding or contributing to them.

It is particularly important in performing work with such a strong social component that workers feel safe and supported in their mental health – this not only benefits workers, but also benefits agencies and the children, youth and families our sector serves.

What is next for the Worker Safety Project?

Children’s Aid Societies have started assessing local gaps and planning for implementation. OACAS will be monitoring progress and has several groups on stand-by to support the sector where systemic gaps or difficulties are identified. It’s exciting and rewarding to see this project come to life. And we would have never made it to this point without the hard work and dedication of all the child welfare professionals involved.