PREVENTING OCCUPATIONAL INJURY: AN EXAMINATION OF TWO PARTICIPATORY WORKPLACE HEALTH PROGRAMS
Dixon , Shane
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Attempting to enhance their productivity or improve working conditions, many businesses have adopted organizational change programs that involve a participatory component. To attain a comprehensive understanding of these change programs we need to investigate the influence of social factors such as power, the impact of local and global contexts, and the role that agency plays in these programs. Further, because organizational programs do not unfold linearly and the contexts in which they are embedded continually evolve, it is crucial to employ an approach that allows studying organizational programs over time. Attending to these considerations enables the production of narratives of organizational change that are congruous with the dynamism of organizational life. This dissertation explores the dynamics of an organizational program in a particular type of occupational health and safety program, which emphasizes employee involvement: participatory ergonomics (PE). Participatory ergonomics, intended to reduce workers’ exposures to work-related musculoskeletal disorders, draws on the input of small groups of labour and management representatives called ergonomic change teams (ECTs) to address exposure to hazards that may lead to musculoskeletal disorders. The dissertation’s examination of an organizational change program consists of an analysis of PE programs in two workplaces: a courier depot and a manufacturing plant. The dissertation’s investigation of the PE programs is based primarily on observations, which were gathered longitudinally as the ECTs endeavoured to make ergonomic changes, and fifty-five semi-structured interviews, which were carried out with ECT members and other key informants who were not members of the ECTs. Data collection occurred during 48 months in the manufacturing setting; in the courier company, collection took place during a 30-month period. The dissertation’s analysis is informed by negotiated order and critical theory lenses. Negotiated order considers social order as an ongoing process and draws attention to the activities of individuals and groups, and the manner in which they influence the dynamics of social life. In regard to organizational programs, it rejects the idea that they unfold independently of actors’ efforts; rather, it considers them as products of individuals’ attempts to establish and maintain the necessary agreements to ensure their operation. Critical theory, as it pertains to occupational health, identifies the constraints that shape working conditions and links these with the uneven distribution of power in the workplace and production imperatives. The dissertation addresses the following general research questions: What actions were undertaken by individuals to ensure the PE programs functioned and continued? How did the organizational and societal context enable or constrain the pursuit of PE program activities? The presentation of the findings begins with an account of the problem-solving processes used in both of the settings, an overview of the types of knowledge that were used, and a description of the actors’ access to knowledge. In each setting, design parameters, production pressures, the nature of the knowledge required to design solutions, and the differential distribution of that knowledge among workplace personnel influenced (a) the effectiveness of the ECTs’ solution building activities, (b) the design process, and (c) the nature and degree of participation by the teams’ worker members. The dissertation then proceeds to an examination of the implementation process. It explores how this process is affected by the organizational context, in particular the ECTs’ limited authority as agents of change, and shows that the minimal authority they possessed prompted the ECTs to select an array of strategies to accomplish their work. These strategies often took the forms of persuasion, persistence, and enlisting the assistance of other personnel. Extending the discussion of implementation, the dissertation then focuses on the division of labour within the ECTs as they carried out their activities. In both settings, implementation activities were unevenly distributed among the ECTs’ membership; they were predominantly carried out by managerial personnel. Both the programs’ functioning and the participation of worker representatives were influenced by the interplay among three main factors: the type of activities that needed to be carried out, workplace hierarchy, and stance, or participants’ views about their ability to act effectively. The discussion of the PE programs then proceeds to an examination of whether the programs were supplied with the resources required to continue over time. The outcomes differed: in Courier Co. the program was discontinued, whereas in Furniture Co. it was maintained. The discussions investigate how PE program continuation was affected by the program supporters’ activities and shaped by conditions both internal and external to the organization. Foremost among these conditions were management’s view of health and safety and the occupational health and safety regulatory framework. The dissertation’s examination of the PE programs over time provides evidence that the functioning and the degree of worker involvement in participatory occupational health programs are conditioned by structural and interactional elements. The programs were shaped by an uneven distribution of power, limits on access to knowledge and scarce resources, and actors’ divergent interests and their capacities to act in accord with these interests. The final chapter of the dissertation reviews the key findings and examines common themes that arose across the workplaces. The dissertation concludes with observations on several topics: the challenges of evaluating program outcomes in settings such as occupational health and safety; the lessons that participatory ergonomics practitioners can take from the study’s findings; and suggestions for possible avenues of future research.