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Management et prévention des accidents du travail – Les responsabilités des cadres à l’égard de la prévention

Management et prévention des accidents du travail – Les responsabilités des cadres à l’égard de la prévention

Gérard Hébert

Volume : 31-1 (1976)


Management and Work Accident Prevention

Work accident and job safety will first be looked at from an historical viewpoint, in relation to changing management theories. In a second part, the nature of accident prevention will be considered, as well as the respective responsibilities of the various economic agents involved.


During the XIXth century, in conformity with the current individualistic approach and the prevailing economic liberalism, no special provision existed concerning work accident compensation. An injured workman had no other recourse than those under the civil law, in the province of Québec, or under the common law in the rest of Canada and the United States. The injured employee had to face three powerful legal defenses from his employer: the assumption of normal risk in any kind of work, the fellow-servarit rule by which the responsibility could be shifted to a fellow-workman and the doctrine of contributory negligence from the part of the injured himself.

The first major change came with the reversal of the burden of proof. Under the Employers' Liability Acts, in the States, the court would assume that the employer and not the employee was responsible for the accident. At the same time, these Acts outlawed "the contracting out of liability" by which some employers required an employee to waive in advance any legal claim for injuries sustained on the job. An equivalent law was enacted in Québec in 1909 ; the Act established the right of an injured employee to a compensation, even determining the amount or proportion of his salary to which he was entitled; the court could increase or reduce this amount in relation to the degree of responsibility of the employer or the employee.

This was about the time when Frederick Taylor published hisPrinciples of Scientific Management. This work has become the symbol of time and motion studies ; it included nevertheless a certain amount of consideration to the employee's welfare, at least in relation to his productive capacities.

The development of large industries in the early XXth century brought into ever greater evidence the difficulty of establishing the various responsibilities of a work accident; the work accident appeared more and more as the consequence of a network of circumstances of which the injured employee was more the victim than the responsible agent. The number of accidents even served as further proof; it is said that in the year 1907, in two industries alone, railroading and bituminous coal mining, there were 7,000 dead in the United States.

The idea of a no-fault insurance system was introduced in the State of Wisconsin in 1911; it was the beginning of our modem workmen's compensation laws. The first such law in Canada was enacted by the province of Ontario in 1914; Québec followed suit, after a few unsuccessful trials, with the adoption, in 1931, of its Workmen's Compensation Act. Compensation for a work accident thus became almost automatic, under a kind of obligatory mutual insurance System, with contributions adapted to the various industries accident record.

In the meantime, management theories had moved from the original Taylorism to a new approach called human relations. It had a fairly rapid impact on the study of industrial accidents. The main preoccupation had been, right from the very first safety associations in the late XIXth century in Europe, to design and promote safe machines and tools. The next step was to look into the attitudes and characteristics of the worker to explain some of the work accidents. The idea of an accident-prone employee emerged from these studies, and an easy way to reduce accident rate was not to hire such an employee.

The human relations approach brought another element into the picture : the social pressure stemming from the immediate superiors of the worker and even more from his fellow-workmen. A new approach, called psychosociological, bound together technical, human and environmental elements. Authors started to investigate less the accident it-self and more the unsafe behavior immediately preceding the accident: how and why an employee decides to take a risk instead of following the safe procedure ?

This global approach was in keeping with the new contemporary management theories, which stemmed from organizational behavior studies: management by objectives and participative management. In the same line, responsibilities for safety were considered to rest not only with management and the State, but also with the employees them-selves and their organizations.

From the legal viewpoint, basic principles for workmen's compensation remained the same, but rehabilitation and prevention were stressed much more heavily through special statutes and bylaws.


A National Commission on State Workmen's Compensation Laws, established in the United States in 1971, stated five objectives for a modem workmen's compensation program :

1. Broad coverage

2. Substantial protection against interruption of income

3. Provisions for sufficient medical care and rehabilitation services

4. Encouragement of safety

5. An effective System for delivery of the benefits and services

The fifth objective is simply a means to ensure the attainment of the previous four. The first expresses an important characteristic of an industrial safety system, that it should cover inasmuch as possible every employee in a country. This leaves three basic objectives: protection of income by adequate compensation, protection of the health and integrity of the body after an accident by proper rehabilitation services, and, finally, advance protection of health and body integrity by an adequate system of accident prevention.

Accident prevention can be defined as the sum total of all measures to reduce or eliminate all risks or dangers of accident. These measures should be at the same time technical, human and environmental. Because of the number of factors that may cause an accident and of the corresponding elements that must make up an effective prevention program, safety at work has been defined as a state of mind, without which even the best program on paper would be totally ineffective.

One author has expressed graphically the respective importance of various accident causes. (See the diagram in the French text.) Human and technical factors are considered to represent the most immediate explanation of an accident. Perhaps because it is easier to study these two aspects and to propose there from seemingly adequate measures, these two types of causes have been abundantly dealt with. But the accidents are still with us. The critical incident, which changes the normal operation of a machine or a normal work process has become the center of current accident research. It has been found, for instance, that risks are always taken because of a compromise between a safe measure (which is always cumbersome), and other goals such as reduced effort, increased productivity or social approval. Finally, the one single most important set of causes lies with the organization itself or, in other words, with the importance — or lack of importance — given by each company to the safety factor: the rules it will set to ensure safe operations and the attention its representatives, from the board of directors right down to the foremen, will give to the implementation of these rules.

A long list of means for accident prevention is often presented. They can be summarized under the following headings :

1. Rules and norms

2. Inspection

3. Education and motivation

4. Organization

All economic agents — the State, the employer, the employee and his union — have their responsibility towards each of these four points. But, in a sense, the State could be held more directly responsible for the first two and the employer for the last two, with the employee and his union more concerned with number 3. The responsibility of the State, especially in terms of setting up the rules and norms and of organizing a proper inspection service, is commonly recognized and will not be dealt with here longer.

The responsibility of the employer is absolutely fundamental. The diagram mentioned earlier underlined this fact by the importance granted to cause number one. This is so because the attitude of management towards safety will be reflected in all relevant aspects. Safe machines and tools, for instance, depend essentially on the employer. Even from the viewpoint of risk-taking by the employee, the weight of company attitudes is predominant: it productivity is stressed at the expense of safety, employees will take more risks to meet the production standards and obtain the social and for monetary approval they look for. This observation is often expressed by the slogan: "Safety comes from up above downward".

The necessity of employee cooperation in any safety program is self-evident. If the employee does not accept to work the safe way, efforts will be fruitless It is the responsibility of the company to show the employee the safe way of doing things, especially to new employees and to all employees when new tools or machinery are introduced. This education program, together with a publicity program to motivate the employee, should be an important part of the safety program of any company. Participation of management at all levels is a must: the program will not work if the highest and the lowest levels do not fully cooperate.

Mutual cooperation between management and the employees, whether directly represented or through their union, can be properly channelled through safety joint commitees. These are now mandatory, in Québec, in any establishment with more than twenty workers and a rate of more than twenty-five accidents per million working hours. They are difficult to operate, but with a minimum of good faith and loyal effort, they can be effective for, as it has often been remarked, the workers themselves and their representatives have part of the necessary knowledge for any modification, correction and betterment of job safety.

Because of the complexity of preventive measures, organization is necessary for all the agents involved: the State, the employer and the employee through his union. The State and the employer face a kind of dilemma: unification or coordination? In other words, is it better to have one body or even one person, in the factory or on site, with proper authority to deal with all aspects of the safety program, or to make safety one of the basic responsibilities of all levels of management? The two Systems have their ad-vantages and shortcomings. At the State level, so many different Departments and Commissions have to do in workmen's compensation and job safety that the Riverin Report has recommended to regroup them in only oneRégie with all the necessary powers. At the company level, the problem is not that easy: the one-man approach ensures competence but not effective authority; the line-management approach ensures authority but not necessarily competence and commitment. But this problem of structure may not be that important: whether the System is a unified or a coordinated one, much more determinant is the state of mind of all those involved.

One could develop this state of mind by the mere consideration of the number of fatal accidents that occur every year in this province. In 1974, there were no less than 200 fatalities and over 5,000 permanent disability cases from work accidents or injuries. Any sensible person with some responsibility in safety should have no rest until these figures are brought down to zero.