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Top tips for workplace safety due diligence

By Vanessa Chris
| www.cos-mag.com

While it may be tempting to simply ignore the issue, ignorance is not an excuse in the eyes of the law, especially when it comes to workplace health and safety. Experts offer some simple tips you can do to establish workplace safety due diligence.

The process of keeping your workers safe can often seem like an overwhelming — and sometimes impossible — task. Depending on your work environment, any number of things can go wrong at any given time, and under the law it's your responsibility, as an employer, to ensure you covered every possible step to prevent that "wrong" thing from happening.

While it may be tempting to simply ignore the issue, ignorance is not an excuse in the eyes of the law — and failure to take efficient due diligence measures can end up costing both you and your employees. Here are some tips to simplify the due diligence process, and implement an effective health and safety plan:

1. Set the tone from the top.

When an employee is injured — or worse, killed — many companies don't realize that a failure to act rests on the shoulders of all involved. That means directors and officers also have a responsibility to ensure the proper steps were taken to prevent the accident, and the appropriate resources were provided. It's important, therefore, to ensure those at the top are invested in health and safety, thus setting the tone for the rest of the company.

With management involved, it will be much easier to get employees on board. Because most people want to work in a safe environment, they can help identify potential health and safety risks and make suggestions for procedures that management might not typically catch.

2. Get it in writing.

Just because nothing has gone wrong in the past doesn't mean nothing ever will. Yet, many companies still rely on their senior employees to spread the word about health and safety procedures.

"These companies typically have one senior guy and everyone takes their cues from him on the safe way to work," says Landon Young, a partner at the law firm Stringer Brisbin Humphrey. "In this scenario, safety procedures are inconsistent — and in many cases, incorrect — because they're not written down."

Young says it's important for every company to have their health and safety procedures properly documented, and easily accessible to all employees. Not only will this ensure everyone is taking the appropriate safety precautions, but it will serve as proof of the company's due diligence if something were to happen.

3. Devise a plan.

If you don't have formal health and safety procedures in place, start with the basics. Contact your local safety associations or provincial watchdogs to find out where you should start (many offer starter guides, free of charge, on their websites).

"See which legal requirements apply to you and learn about what your minimal requirements are," says Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. "Develop a plan that's pertinent to your business and break it into simple steps. The most important thing is to get the process started."

Don't be afraid to hire a third-party consultant to help you launch your health and safety program if you're feeling overwhelmed. These companies can help you focus on the most important first steps.

4. Train, train and train again.

It's important to ensure all your supervisors have the appropriate certification and training required for your particular work environment. Refresher courses should be offered as required, or as the workplace changes. All employees should also be trained on the equipment they will be using, as well as introduced to the company's health and safety procedures — and this includes temporary employees.

"Some employers think they're not responsible for agency and temporary workers, but they are," says Young. "All outside agency workers need training and need to be kept abreast of health and safety policies. The agency must, in writing, provide basic health and safety training."

Young suggests requesting access to the employee's training certificates, or conducting a quick quiz to ensure they know the basics. They should also be provided a quick equipment training session on anything they will be using.

5. Don't be afraid to be the bad guy.

Discipline is an important aspect of any company's worker safety due diligence practices. Not only does it set the tone and enforce proper workplace behaviour, but it shows that breaking the rules is not tolerated. This is something that will be vital in the company's defence if an employee is injured because he or she broke the rules.

It's important, then, to have a solid disciplinary procedure in place, that includes verbal warnings, written warnings, suspensions and discharges.

6. Appoint a health and safety committee.

A designated health and safety committee, that is made up of both management and employees, will ensure that all health and safety-related matters are addressed on a regular basis. This committee should be responsible for ensuring an accident response system is in place, and for conducting internal response investigations after accidents occur. It should also stay abreast of any changes in the workplace, as well as the addition of potential hazards.

"Remember that the workplace changes all the time — even if you're just bringing in a new cleaning chemical — so make sure you assess the hazards of each change and respond accordingly," says Chappel.

She adds that once health and safety is a designated company priority, you may see a spike in accident reports. Don't take this as a bad sign — it's actually a good thing, because employees are identifying potential hazards before they become a bigger problem, which can only make your workplace a safer one in the long run.

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Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Toronto. You may contact her at vachris@rogers.com

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