Alberta firm finds safety solution for contingent employees

Edmonton Exchanger awarded 2010 Health and Safety Leader Award

Getting buy-in for safety programs can be challenging with long-time employees, much less contingent workers who may be on-site for six weeks or less. Edmonton Exchanger, an Alberta-based company that makes custom fabricated steel products, has managed to do that and, in the process, earned the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Council’s 2010 Health and Safety Leader Award.

Edmonton Exchanger builds large-scale pressure vessel components, steel plates and heat exchanger parts, among other things. It’s dangerous work and almost all of it is done by workers hired on a project basis from trade unions.

“We have a fairly transient workforce,” said field health and safety manager Cheryl Hamer. “Our goal is to get these guys to work and to get them sharing our approach and philosophy when it comes to safety.”

That was difficult until a few years ago. There was a gap in the apprenticeship training programs within several unions that meant workers were arriving on-site without the skills they needed, said John Evans, vice-president of operations. Depending on the time of year, and the projects it is working on, the company employs as many as 1,800 workers.

“The industry is changing so much. At one time, you would be using wrenches and air impacts to tighten flanges and equipment,” he said. “Now, they’re using a lot more sophisticated equipment. There were people getting hurt because they didn’t know how to use the equipment.”

While there hasn’t been a great frequency of accidents over the years, the injuries have been serious enough to warrant attention, he said.

“We were seeing and hearing about people losing the tips of their fingers, pinching their hands,” said Evans.

“We didn’t have a lot of injuries,” said Hamer. “But we had a couple and they were significant — and significant to us because we were sending a worker home with missing pieces.”

Following a particularly serious injury two years ago, Edmonton Exchanger developed seven in-house, competency-based training modules.

“Now when the workers come out to our site, if we’re doing this specialized work, we train them,” said Evans. “We couldn’t wait. It was unacceptable to us. People were getting hurt.”

How the training works

The training is broken down into specific skills, such as tensioning, torquing, clamshell prepping and severing. Workers start in a classroom where they learn the technical aspects of the equipment, followed by a practical demonstration. After completing textbook exercises and tests, the company does ­followup competency testing.

“We put them to work with a mentor — somebody who is considered competent — and then we evaluate them through a competency checklist until we can be sure they meet the requirements, that they have the confidence and can demonstrate the skills with little or no supervision,” said Hamer.

The mentor is key to the success of the program, especially given the tight timelines for training, she said.

“People have only so much retention and people learn and retain information by practice,” she said. “So, we set them up with people who have the skills and have that ability to teach and evaluate their progress and that learning.”

That’s especially important given the nature of the work, said Evans.

“You would get people to a job tomorrow and you would train them to do this work, then they may not come across this training again for a number of weeks or a number of months,” he said. “So the mentor will retrain them and go out on the job with them and watch them and go through the checklist again.”

The company has spent about $200,000 to develop the training modules. There was some initial reluctance from workers but those days have passed, said Evans. And asking for suggestions on improvement — and acting on them — added to the buy-in.

For example, the company decreased the size of a card used to do field-level risk assessments after workers asked for something that was small enough to fold up and fit in their coverall pockets.

“When people suggest those changes and you take them to heart and roll them out, it’s showing them you care and you’re listening,” said Hamer.

The company also uses supervision staff — permanent employees who oversee workers at the job site — to deliver the message. They were interviewed about their personal approaches to safety for a new employee orientation video.

“The video is very moving,” said Hamer, adding it helps to build a connection with contingent workers. “From the minute they walk onto the job site, they’re already developing that relationship.”

No serious incidents since launch of new program

Since the introduction of the training program in 2008, there hasn’t been a single serious accident, said Evans.

“It was quite daunting as a worker to go out on a job and be asked to do something they were unfamiliar with,” he said. “Years ago, you would have to learn as you go. Now they’re being taught and they enjoy that. The feedback has been very, very positive.”

Among workers, there is now better hazard recognition, communication and maintenance of equipment, said Hamer.

“People know what they’re doing. They’re more confident and we’re reaping the benefits.”

Better training has also translated into better productivity and increased competitiveness, said Evans.

“You try to set your manpower up for success and if the workers are having success, that just goes through the company and to the client,” he said.

Danielle Harder is a Brooklin, Ont.-based freelance writer. This article originally appeared in Canadian Safety Reporter, a new publication from the editors of Canadian HR Reporter that focuses on occupational health and safety for OHS managers and HR professionals. For more information, visit

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