Cannabis, smartphones and mental illness: How workplace health and safety is changing

For years, workplace health and safety was all about preventing physical harm to employees on the job, but an annual conference in Mississauga this week will tackle mental health issues brought on by things like smartphone use and the legalization of cannabis.

Annual workplace health and safety conference runs Tuesday and Wednesday in Mississauga

The annual Partners in Prevention conference, running Tuesday and Wednesday at the International Centre in Mississauga, brings together workplace health and safety professionals to discuss the latest issues in the field. (Dave Merrow/WSPS)

For years, workplace health and safety meant preventing physical harm to employees on the job, but social change brought on by things like smartphones and the legalization of cannabis is rapidly turning the conversation towards mental health, experts say.

That's why topics like marijuana use and the rise of cellphones are dominating the agenda at the annual Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) conference, running Tuesday and Wednesday at Mississauga's International Centre.

The event gives health and safety professionals a chance to learn about emerging issues in the field.

And, according to the president and CEO of WSPS, Lynn Brownell, the industry is definitely evolving.

"When I first started ... the topics were really all about the hazards that you were going to face in the physical realm," she said. "Now, "there's psychosocial-harms prevention, which is where we get into the mental-health space.

"Leadership and culture are very important … We see a stronger commitment to personal wellness." 

WSPS is a provincial health and safety association serving 167,000 firms and 4.1 million workers.

The conference, called Partners in Prevention, features speakers, workshops and seminars for industry professionals on topics from harassment to sleep habits to managing fatigue.

The new healthy, safe workplace

One of the main topics being discussed this year is mental health challenges arising from the overuse of cell phones.

"It's quite an amazing revolution for everyone to have this powerful computer which they carry around with them," said Jim Lees, a social worker speaking about cell phones and workplace wellness at the conference.

"We're starting to see some of the negative impacts of people constantly tethered and rooting their lives through their phones, particularly with younger people."

The conference also includes a number of keynote speakers. (Dave Merrow/WSPS)

Lees said phones have created a demand for constant availability. He'll focus on how people need to create a technological balance, logging off in order to improve their mental well-being.

"I would say that interest in this and talking honestly about it is fairly new," he said.

"We're only 12 years into having iPhones and the impact that they've had is so far reaching."

Jay Rosenthal, the president of a news and analysis platform call Business of Cannabis, will also talk about changes to the workplace as a result of marijuana legalization.

Some of the bigger concerns, he said, will be creating policies to address the use of medical cannabis as well as how marijuana should fit into social situations, such as office parties or work functions.

"I think the idea that this is now sweeping the nation and is a major concern is probably false, but it is something workplaces both have and will continue to consider and adapt to new realities," he said.

Physical harms still a reality at work

Staff with the Ontario government, including the Ministry of Labour's chief prevention officer, Ron Kelusky, will also be at the conference.

He said health and psychological well-being are a big focus for the government right now, but they're still frequently called to deal with cases of violence, bullying and harassment.

A pavillion at the conference offers interactive seminars involving electrical safety and working at heights. (WSPS)

"We're looking at not only working towards reducing, if not eliminating, traumatic physical injury within the workplace. It's still problematic, but occupational disease is also a problem," he said.

He said out of 228 workplace deaths in Ontario in 2018, two thirds resulted from legacy exposures and occupational diseases.

The province is in the midst of consultations for a five-year plan on how to mitigate those dangers, but Kelusky said the conference offers a place to discuss the latest challenges, and improvements, to workplace health.

"Really, people are starting to look at, from a productivity perspective, how having a healthy workplace psychologically can actually create competitive advantages for employers," he said.

"We're having the conversation now. It's much more open than it was in the past."


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