IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Interaction Between Human Resources Management and OHS - Preparing Future Managers


A number of disciplines, including ergonomics, medicine, toxicology and andragogy, have helped to further our knowledge of occupational health and safety (OHS). Despite the scientific advances, a challenge remains: to develop the competencies of managers and make them aware of their responsibilities regarding preventive and corrective measures to ensure occupational health and safety. A team of professors from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) decided to tackle the problem by creating a database of case studies to be used to educate future managers. The cases were developed from information obtained during interviews with human resources (HR) and OHS managers in 11 organizations. During the interviews, emphasis was placed on management situations that involved interaction between OHS and human resources management (HRM).

The pedagogical objectives of the project were to develop the competencies of future managers so they will understand OHS and HRM determinants, know how to diagnose an OHS problem and develop insight and foresight with respect to the emergence of OHS issues. The goal was to help future managers to create dynamics that encourage an OHS culture and to incorporate OHS measures in a sustainable organizational change process.

The participants are large and small organizations operating in a variety of industries, some in metropolitan areas and others in outlying areas. The OHS problems cited were of all types: back pain (herniated disc), musculoskeletal disorders (tendinitis, bursitis), burns, falls and mental health issues (depression, harassment, mobbing). These problems were related to difficulties with work organization, management, harmonization of work methods, wearing of protective equipment and physical or psychological overwork. The HRM problems involved difficulties recruiting and retaining a competent workforce, poor work relations, increased absenteeism and staff turnover, and lack of work/family balance. Most of these HRM problems came to light when the OHS problems were analyzed.

What we heard from the representatives soon led us to look at the interactive effects of HRM and OHS caused by major restructuring. As the data collection progressed, the interviews proved richer sources of information than expected. The complexity of the cases and the efforts invested to solve the problems revealed different forms of organizational resilience, an element that proved important in understanding problem-solving strategies. From the surveys also emerged compelling data on the impact of societal problems on the interaction between OHS and HRM issues.
Most of the participants had conducted exhaustive analyses of their problems and of possible solutions. All, however, admitted they had not solved their problems and had neither assessed the solutions implemented nor systematically recorded their observations. They proposed, as case studies, unresolved problematic situations that involved current societal problems and contexts to which they are exposed.

This database of case studies was validated with five groups of students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate OHS courses. The primary objective was to validate the user-friendliness of the teaching materials. In general, the descriptive case studies were easy to use. Nonetheless, some cases were more difficult, as they were packed with confusing background information and the students had to work to identify and bring together the elements essential for solving the problems. The second objective was to validate the transferability of what was learned to other disciplines, such as labour relations. Though efforts were made to involve teachers of labour relations, the topics addressed in the case studies were too different from what they teach to be used in their syllabi. Teachers in other fields will most likely be able to find case studies in the database that can easily be incorporated into their course material. The third objective was to validate the impact of case-based teaching. Student grades on written reports were satisfactory, and exchanges in class were lively and meaningful. However, actual debates emerged only in the graduate level classes. Teachers and students who had more work experience and had used case studies before as a learning tool benefited more from this approach.

Faced with complex interactions between OHS and HRM, the companies demonstrated organizational resilience. The researchers looked at four elements in analyzing organizational resilience in the problem-solving processes: a) the triggering or accelerating event; b) the threat to corporate identity, corporate survival or market share; c) experience return, orthe lesson learned from the threatening experience; d) the flexibility to think outside the box when analyzing problems and exploring solutions.

Almost all respondents mentioned societal issues that affect their company’s operations, even though the topic was not included in our interview guide.One section of the report discusses societal issues that contribute to the interaction between HRM and OHS. In order of importance, these issues are as follows: a) workforce renewal; b) an aging workforce; c) integration of the new generation of workers; d) impoverishment of workers and communities. All these societal problems are found within the companies and interact with the OHS and HRM issues.

Additional Information

Category: Research Report
Research Project: 0099-8450
Online since: April 02, 2012
Format: Text