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Studies cite business benefits of safeguarding workers: labour groups

Workplace illness and injuries take their toll on Canadian workers every year, and investors -- especially the pension funds that oversee large market portfolios -- should assess the occupational health and safety policies of companies before investing, according to two recently released studies from labour-linked bodies.

Injuries serious enough to force individuals to miss work occur over 300,000 times a year across the country, at great cost to Canadian business.

Citing Health Canada's most recent analysis of the economic burden of illness in Canada, completed in 1998, the labour-funded Shareholders Association for Research and Education says in a paper issued late last month that the value of lost production due to premature mortality was an estimated $33.5 billion; the value of lost production due to long-term disability was $32.3 billion, and the value of production lost due to short-term disability was $9.8 billion.

In a report issued on April 28 -- the World Day for Health and Safety at Work -- SHARE makes the case that it's in the interest of businesses and investors to take steps to protect workers from occupational health and safety dangers.

The SHARE guidance report outlines best practice principles for Canadian companies to provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees, including key questions and recommendations for investors to consider when managing health and safety risks in their portfolios.

"We are releasing this report as part of our Investing in Decent Work project," said SHARE executive director Peter Chapman. "The goal of the project is to help build the capacity of pension funds to meet their long-term financial obligations to plan members in a way that recognizes and promotes the fundamental human rights of workers."

While the SHARE report makes a strong case for all investors to take occupational health and safety records and policies into account when making investments, the argument for privileging safety issues when investing will be particularly compelling for pension plans and other institutional investors linked to organized labour.

The most significant institutional investors in Canada in 2007 included the Canadian Pension Plan, administering over $116 billion; the Caisse depot et placement du Quebec with $237 billion; BC Investment Management with $83.4 billion; the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan with $106 billion and Alberta Investment Management with $73 billion. Globally, pension funds managed $23 trillion in 2010.

With that amount in mind, the Global Unions Committee on Workers' Capital issued its report Investing in Decent Work: Leveraging workers’ capital for healthy and safe workplace on April 28.

According to the international report, which was coordinated with the Canadian study and, like the SHARE document, funded by organized labour: "... a systematic review of relevant policy and academic research points to a positive relationship between health and safety performance and financial performance at the firm level. Failure to ensure high health and safety standards are associated with clear financial, reputational and regulatory risks for companies."

"It is shameful work-related accidents or diseases claim the life of one worker every 15 seconds," said Ken Georgetti, chair of the Committee on Workers' Capital and president of the Canadian Labour Congress said.

"Trade unions in Canada and beyond want governments to enact and enforce regulations that address workplace violence and harassment, exposure to toxics, repetitive stress injuries andemotional strains. But as this report shows, investors can act to hold companies accountable for poor performance on worker health and safety. Innovative partnerships between labour rights advocates and investors can deliver the promise of decent work for all."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy stories for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

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