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Safety Leader of the Year winner shares success with safety team at Vincor Canada

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

He came to Vincor Canada three and a half years ago as the company’s first-ever safety manager. Seeing the wine company’s injury statistics for the first time, Jeremy Shorthouse knew he had his work cut out for him.

“I couldn’t believe how high the numbers were,” says Shorthouse, the national environmental, health and safety manager at Vincor Canada, a wine manufacturer and retailer with about 2,000 employees spread across Canada. “In fact, when we started our statistics were probably pretty close to 400 to 500 per cent higher than our U.S. counterparts.” Vincor is owned by Constellation Brands, Inc. based in Victor, New York.

Two years after Shorthouse took on the challenge — with help from both the employees and management — Vincor Canada managed to significantly bring down its injury rates: 20 per cent reduction in incidents, 60 per cent in lost-time claims and 80 per cent in severity rates.

The unanimous choice for this year’s Safety Leader of the Year Award, Shorthouse says he shares the honour with his health and safety team. Shorthouse works out of Vincor’s Niagara Falls, Ont. facility, where the COS team got a tour of its Jackson-Triggs estate winery and a taste of the famed hospitality of the Canadian wine industry.

Shorthouse says success in safety comes easy when you love the industry you’re in, you work for a great company and you lead happy, passionate people.

“One of the key things on why we have done so well in the last few years is (because) the people love to work for this organization and this industry,” he says. “If you’re having fun working and you enjoy going to your job, selling safety is way easier.”

That’s not to say that the job of safety manager didn’t come with its own set of challenges, however. Shorthouse recalls that when he took on the job at Vincor, it was clear to him that the company truly cared about the safety of its employees; it just needed the resource that would take the company where it wanted to be with its safety culture.

That’s where Shorthouse comes in.

“My goal, ultimately, is to make everybody else out there a safety leader,” says Shorthouse. “Because I’m not at these sites all the time, so I need to motivate those people to want to be safety leaders at their own site — and it’s been very successful.”

Shorthouse believes in positive reinforcement when creating a culture of safety in the workplace. When addressing safety issues, he focuses on opportunities rather than criticism.

“Typically, when you walk into a site — let’s say there’s guarding missing from a machine — most people’s first reaction is to go right at the guarding and say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Whereas, I would look at the whole program and say, ‘You know what, guys, you are doing a great job and we have an opportunity to fix up some guarding here.’”

Beginnings

Shorthouse is not only the first person to hold the title of safety manager at Vincor Canada, he is also the first one in the entire Canadian wine industry (there are two of them now, according to Shorthouse).

The wine business is a multi-faceted industry that presents different types of health and safety hazards, depending on where one works — farming, manufacturing or retail. It is challenging but never dull, Shorthouse says.

“That’s why I love the job so much. In one minute I could be talking to the wine maker at one of our estate wineries, the next minute I could be dealing with a wine rack employee in our retail side of the business.”

Vincor owns wineries across Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick, so Shorthouse travels throughout the country several times a year. It would have been a challenging feat for one safety manager to deal with multiple regulatory environments, but Shorthouse felt the best way to deal with diversity is unification. With support from the company’s executive leadership, he developed a single national health and safety program for the entire company.

His first year at Vincor was then spent developing the company’s national OH&S program. Shorthouse travelled to the company’s various sites, conducting risk assessments and more importantly, getting to know the people working for the company.

He needed to find a way to get the people to buy in to the new program, and talking to them in a language they can understand seemed like a great idea. What better way to accomplish that than learning the language of wine making?

“I decided to take a course at Brock University through the Wine Council of Ontario to learn about wine making and what it was all about,” says Shorthouse. “So that when I would go to the sites and I would be talking and dealing with the people making the wine, I can talk the same lingo.”

This sent a powerful message to the employees, Shorthouse says, which indicated a sincere desire by their safety manager to understand where they’re coming from and work with them.

Conducting the risk assessment also allowed Shorthouse to determine a list of issues that needed to be addressed if the company was to improve its injury record. Among these top priorities was improving the company’s injury management system and return-to-work program, which was then managed by a third-party contracted by Vincor. Shorthouse felt that was something that needed to be brought and managed in-house — so he did.


“We basically streamlined from the time somebody had an accident… right through to an early and safe return to work. We built that whole program and then we trained everybody in this company on every piece of it. It’s been an important piece of the puzzle.”

As a result, Vincor managed to save $1.8 million in injury costs last year, says Shorthouse. “It’s big business, but most importantly to us is the people side and the fact that we know we’re not injuring as many people as we did in the past.”

Buy-in

Shorthouse admits his accomplishments at Vincor would not have been possible without the people buying into the OH&S programs and working towards the common goal of a safer workplace.

Management support is key in getting the rest of the organization to support the safety initiatives, he says. For example, the Vincor Safety Days is a 2-day safety seminar that was initially rolled out to managers, supervisors and safety committee members this year.

Shorthouse plans to roll out the same Vincor Safety Days next year to the rest of the organization. “I felt that there is enough passion in our management team across the country that I could gather the buy-in, which I have. Then I could get them to help me drive it down to employees.”

Safety perception surveys are also a big part of Vincor’s health and safety program. It is Shorthouse’s goal to close the gap between how employees and management view the company’s health and safety program.

“My goal is to get 1,800 employees on the same page on where we are, and then continuously improve from there.”

In addition to his OH&S management duties, Shorthouse is also responsible for the company’s “Green Team” initiatives, a significant part of Vincor’s corporate social responsibility program.

Manager and teacher

Shorthouse spends some of his weeknights teaching at Niagara College. He has been an instructor in the school’s health and safety program for 10 years.

With an honors degree in geography and environmental studies and a post-diploma in environmental, health and safety, teaching has always been a part of Shourthouse’s career in the health and safety field.

“Health and safety has given me a career and it has given me an opportunity to be who I am as a person,” says Shorthouse. “To be able to not only give health and safety instructions to the employees in the business I am in, it gave me an opportunity to show everybody else out there that safety is important.”

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