HR leaders talk

Occupational health and safety

Paul Theriault
Vice-president of human resources
NB Power

The Fredericton-based power company employs about 2,500 workers, most of them working in high-risk field jobs.

About three years ago, an employee at NB Power walked into an off-limits area and was electrocuted. His burns were so bad that he still hasn’t returned to work and might never be able to, says Paul Theriault, vice-president of human resources.

The employee’s team did everything right that day. They had the required daily “tail board” conference — a meeting to discuss the day’s jobs and the safety implications of each job. All of the workers had received extensive safety training and everyone, including the injured worker, knew not to enter the off-limits area.

However, because workers were trained about the area and it wasn’t a place someone could just stumble upon, there was no physical barrier cordoning off the area.

“If in fact we had put an extra barrier around that area, so that he could not have gone there without bumping into the barrier, then this accident could have been prevented,” says Theriault.

This incident made him realize no matter how many barriers or safety precautions exist, he needs to keep asking himself if there needs to be more.

“The more barriers you have between you and the safety hazard, obviously the better chance you have of keeping your people safe.”

This incident is also an example of how a person’s state of mind can affect his safety on the job. Even without the physical barrier, the worker knew not to enter the area, he knew it wasn’t safe, but he did so anyway, says Theriault.

“To this day, he would not be able to tell you what happened to his state of mind that day,” he says.

That’s why NB Power takes a holistic approach to health and safety and makes it one of eight integrated HR functions. The other seven functions are recruitment, compensation, diversity, leadership, relationship management, well-being and labour relations.

Too often, HR issues have been dealt with in isolation, not taking into consideration the impact one event or issue can have on the others, says Theriault.

For example, if an employee has an issue around compensation and that issue isn’t addressed to his satisfaction, he will probably be distracted while doing his other work and in a high-risk organization such as NB Power, that distraction can result in a serious injury.

“We believe (injuries) happen when your focus is not there,” says Theriault.

Until 1994, occupational health and safety was a completely separate function at NB Power. From 1978 to 1993, the utility company had an average of 110 lost-time accidents per year and an average of 1,500 to 2,000 lost days.

“For years, there have been work standards and work methods in place to ensure we have our people as safe as possible. And in spite of that, people have been getting hurt,” says Theriault. “Attacking safety by itself, in our view, does not get it done.”

It is only by ensuring employees are in the best possible state of mind that the company has a chance of mitigating, or possibly eliminating, workplace accidents, says Theriault.

Those things most likely to affect an employee’s state of mind (such as opportunities for advancement, compensation, relationship with management, labour relations and wellness) often fall under HR’s purview so it just makes sense for occupational health and safety to reside in HR as well, says Theriault.

“It’s certainly natural for me to have it there,” he says. “You certainly would not think of putting the mental well-being of an operation under anything but HR and I certainly would see the physical part being in the same category.”

Once occupational health and safety was brought under HR’s control in 1994 and integrated with the other seven HR areas, there was a significant reduction in workplace accidents. In the past five years there has been an average of 10 lost-time accidents per year and an average of 200 lost days.

Another aspect of health and safety affected by an employee’s state of mind is his willingness to exercise his right to refuse unsafe work, says Theriault.

On any given day, an employee at NB Power might have to do a job that involves some risk. If everything else is going fine for the employee, the risks are mitigated by all the safety training and procedures. However, if on a particular day an employee had a bad night’s sleep and isn’t feeling 100 per cent and he does the job anyway, he’s at greater risk of injuring himself, says Theriault.

That’s when an employee’s relationship with his supervisor and his team comes into play. If an employee doesn’t feel comfortable with his supervisor or feels his peers will ridicule him for refusing work, he’s less likely to refuse the job.

“If a person can’t say, ‘I can’t climb that pole today’ without risking being sent home and being ostracized for not doing his or her job, your risk has increased,” says Theriault.

Wayne Johnson
Senior vice-president and chief human resources officer
Maple Leaf Foods

Headquartered in Toronto, Maple Leaf Foods employs 23,000 people in its meat, bakery and agribusiness operations across Canada and around the world.

Wayne Johnson’s no-nonsense approach to human resources — “The ideal size of an HR department is zero” — comes as no surprise considering his resumé.

The senior vice-president and chief human resources officer with Maple Leaf Foods once served aboard the Canadian destroyer HMCS Margaree. He later moved into human resources with the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Armed Forces.

Today, he defines his department’s boundaries with the kind of black-and-white criteria you might expect from a former military man. In his view, HR has only three roles: where there are economies of scale involved (such as benefits administration), where HR might have technical expertise (such as developing severance packages) and where the issues are strategic versus tactical.

“With that as a context, occupational health and safety (OHS) doesn’t come anywhere close to HR,” he says. “To do that requires a knowledge of what takes place within a particular operation that HR typically won’t have. It’s something you expect the operational people to have.”

At Maple Leaf Foods, OHS falls under the purview of manufacturing and operations “where it belongs… because HR would blow it.”

“There’s absolutely nothing about the average HR professional that makes him or her extraordinarily well-qualified to operate in the health and safety area,” he says. “Manufacturing people are much more likely to be trained and developed in that area, and have more exposure in that area.”

Johnson says HR officers who have never worked on a meat production line have no idea of the dangers or risks faced by workers and, as such, have no ownership for health and safety.

“As soon as you make something a staff function, I believe it becomes less important,” he says.

Johnson goes on to suggest that farming out OHS to the HR department is an off-loading of responsibility.

“If you, as a manager, are shipping out responsibility for health and safety to a staff organization, are you also going to ship out product quality and yields and everything else? Obviously, the answer to that question is no,” he says. “In that regard, I don’t see health and safety as being any different than any other metric by which you judge a good, or not so good, plant.”

Johnson thinks of health and safety as a leading indicator of a well-run plant even more so than waste, product quality and yields and productivity.

Thus, the argument goes, the health and safety of workers becomes just as integral to the overall business plan and therefore resides in the purview of operations.

That’s not to say HR doesn’t have a role in OHS, according to Johnson. He says sometimes the two jurisdictions overlap, as in the case of an aging workforce. On the one hand, it’s up to the line manager to ensure safety where physical exertion might become an issue. On the other, HR needs to offer recommendations about how that can be achieved, he says.

Alternatively, Johnson says if someone from HR had experience working on the line, OHS could benefit.

“The ideal HR career path is someone who goes out to the line, comes back to HR, goes out to the line, comes back to HR, each time gathering line experiences,” he says. “Somebody who had experience in the area, on the plant floor, would be better able to implement programs and procedures that would get us closer to our goal of ‘no one gets hurt’ than someone who just learned it from a book or learned it in a degree program.”

Mary Lou Sinclair
Director of corporate safety
Ontario Power Generation

The utilities company, headquartered in Toronto, employs 12,900 workers across Ontario.

Ontario Power Generation’s first and only fatality since becoming its own company (it broke from Ontario Hydro in 1999) serves as a painful, sobering reminder for all the HR staff — no matter how strong a company’s safety record, vulnerability exists.

In 2002, a temporary worker was cleaning a coal conveyor at one of the company’s plants when he become entangled and was crushed to death.

“It was extremely traumatic for the employees who were there who tried to rescue him. It was also devastating not only for the employee’s family but for the site as a whole. It makes you think good is never good enough, and it reminds you that safety is 24/7,” says Mary Lou Sinclair, director of corporate safety at Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

OPG has a good safety record. The company’s safety management and culture was awarded the first and only gold award by the Electrical & Utilities Safety Association in 2005. And last year its health and safety performance for 2006 was awarded the silver President’s Award by the Canadian Electrical Association.

A huge investigation was undertaken following the fatal accident, and significant improvements were made to engineering controls and training. Nevertheless, it’s an incident like this that reminds everyone in the HR department (which has 350 employees) why it’s so important to keep leadership engaged on the importance of health and safety, says Sinclair.

“The way to do that is to sound like a broken record. We try to be the conscience of the organization to ensure we keep raising the bar,” she says. “We’re also the biggest cheerleader celebrating our successes.”

Leadership at OPG is extremely engaged on health and safety, says Sinclair.

The health and safety department (there are about 46 employees — not including wellness staff such as company nurses) was merged under the HR function at OPG’s inception in 1999. The model is collaborative and both centralized and decentralized at the same time, says Sinclair.

For example, there are four “vice-presidents of HR and employee safety,” dedicated to the health and safety of each arm of the electrical energy generator (fossil, nuclear, hydroelectric and corporate). They report to a senior vice-president of HR located at the head office. The technical health and safety staff are in the field, and they report to their respective on-site HR managers.

Having health and safety merged with HR “makes perfect sense,” says Sinclair.

“When you have a company that’s very mature in terms of safety management and technical issues, you’re really dealing with people issues, such as motivation and behaviour. And those are things that the HR function is really good at.”

She adds that because OPG collaborates with its unions on quite a few safety issues, it makes sense to partner with HR in that regard.

“A lot of people skills are needed in order to solve health and safety issues,” she says.

OPG is always fortifying its strong safety culture, and HR’s knowledge in the areas of supporting culture and employee engagement is invaluable, Sinclair says.

One of the main concerns moving forward is transferring that safety knowledge and respect from older workers, set to retire, to the next generation, says Sinclair — yet another task where collaboration with HR will be at the core of the company’s successful health and safety programs and culture.

Ruth Clark
Vice-president of human resources
Hill & Knowlton

This Toronto-based public relations firm has about 200 employees in six offices across the country.

Occupational health and safety at Toronto-based public relations firm Hill & Knowlton has a different focus than that in higher-risk industries such as manufacturing or utilities.

While those industries focus more on employees’ physical safety and lost-time accidents, in Hill & Knowlton’s office environment, wellness and ergonomics are the top health and safety concerns, says Ruth Clark, vice-president of HR.

Wellness is also a business priority for the public relations firm, says Clark.

“If you’re going to be creative and working with clients, then you have to have that balance, you have to have that healthy approach to life,” she says.

Wellness is no longer considered a “nice-to-have” and is very much an integral part of an organization’s success, even though there are still some who don’t see it that way, she adds.

“A healthy workplace is going to be a successful workplace.”

There are several advantages to health and safety falling under HR’s purview, says Clark. HR is able to integrate wellness with other programs that can have an effect on employees’ well-being, such as benefits, flexible work arrangements and training and development.

Training and development might not seem like a wellness initiative, but employees want more than just a paycheque from their job, says Clark.

“They want to feel like they’re contributing, that they’re being successful, that they’re developing and growing.”

Therefore, career development and training help people feel more satisfied with their lives and thus contribute to an employee’s overall wellness, she says.

Each of the firm’s six offices across the country has its own health and safety committee, comprised of management and non-management employees.

Each committee talks about what the office’s health and safety priorities should be and recommends which areas HR, and the office as a whole, should focus on. As part of the firm’s wellness initiatives, the committees decide what topics and issues are of interest to employees and which ones will help them lead a healthy lifestyle.

Every month, the committees use the office wellness board to highlight a specific issue, which can range from dealing with flu season, cancer prevention and heart health to nutrition or summer safety.

The committees also bring in experts to run various workshops on topics such as meditation, stress management and CPR training.

While wellness is a main priority, the health and safety committees are also responsible for employees’ physical safety, says Clark.

“They review conditions in the office, making sure things are safe,” she says.

Employees might not have to worry too much about hazardous materials, but the committees ensure the office environment is tidy and clean, the hallways are clear and there aren’t any tripping hazards.

The premises manager also keeps an eye out for people who may not be sitting at their desks properly and makes suggestions to avoid back, neck and wrist strains, says Clark.

“One of our big challenges, because of the work we do, is ergonomic issues,” she says. “We take it very seriously and address it very quickly.”

The firm addresses ergonomics during employee orientations and offers lunch-and-learn sessions throughout the year so employees are more comfortable approaching management, the health and safety committee or HR when they have a problem, says Clark.

While some employees might require a larger intervention, such as bringing in an outside expert to do an ergonomics assessment of their workspace, the main ergonomics concern for most employees is ensuring they’re aware of their own bad habits and what they can do to prevent any long-term injuries, says Clark. It can be as simple as remembering to stand up and walk around every once in a while, even when there are deadlines to be met, she says.

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