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Getting creative with tight safety budgets

By Stefan Dubowski
| www.cos-mag.com

Occupational health and safety professionals across the country face budget cuts that could make training and education more challenging. But service providers and industry observers say there may be ways of making curtailed safety budgets work, even in tough financial times.

Although the economy shows signs of improving, safety budgets remain depressed, sources say. Patrick Smale, president of E.K. Gillin & Associates, a safety-training company in Stratford, Ont., notes that his firm has seen a 50 per cent drop in business.

“It’s different from a strictly economic downturn,” he says, explaining that the private sector isn’t the only area that has reduced safety spending. “This last round, we actually saw the government stop spending money.”

Smale points to an online poll conducted by the U.S. National Safety Council in 2008, which found that 34 per cent of health and safety professionals were already witnessing the effects of the economy on training programs. Sixty-three per cent of that group said they had less money for education, and 42 per cent said they had fewer staff members to help deliver the training.

Christina Marshall is the manager of occupational health and safety at Safety Services Newfoundland and Labrador (SSNL), a non-profit organization offering driver, motorcycle, community and occupational safety training. She’s noticed that organizations struggle with shrinking safety budgets — and they’re looking for ways to cope.

“Can we do some of the training now, and some later? Is there any way we can spread it out? Before, we would have seen a one-shot deal,” Marshall says.

According to Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs for the Canada Safety Council in Ottawa, the impact of the faltering economy wasn’t immediate. For at least some part of 2009, organizations were implementing programs that had been planned and paid for some time earlier.

But six months later, the money may be gone, and the call for frugality takes precedence.

“We believe that safety is one of those things where you’re managing the risk,” Marchand says. “If you’re not managing the risk, it’s not going to show up right away.... If you don’t get back at it, little by little, incidents start to creep up.”

Coping mechanisms

What are companies doing to cope? Marchand says the smart ones plan to make safety training a priority as soon as their revenue streams will allow.

Procrastinators could find themselves in hot water. “You’ll be able to coast for a while, but then the company could be in trouble if revenues increase but the incident or accident rates are such that you’re spending more,” he says, explaining that costs to cover injured workers and train replacement staff can add up.

Some businesses learn that the hard way, he says. “We’ve seen truck fleets that have gone from 1.5 collisions per day to one every six weeks, then back to one and a quarter, in the course of seven or eight years.” The ups and downs resulted from sporadic safety training, implemented initially to improve the incidence rate, then ignored after the safety levels improved — and implemented again as the rate slid back to terrible.

Some businesses see safety training as an inoculation, Marchand says: “I took the antibiotic, and now I’m cured.” But it’s more like a long-term health issue that needs persistent management. “The problem is going to come back.”

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Government measures[/strong]

It’s ironic that safety-training budgets would shrink just as provincial governments ramp up efforts to spread the safety message.

In April, Alberta announced that its 2009 budget would include $37.5 million to support labour standards and workplace safety — a $5-million increase over the previous year.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the government introduced new safety regulations compelling organizations to comply with the latest safety codes and standards. The province also introduced rules around entering enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, additional requirements for fall-arrest systems, new processes for de-energizing equipment prior to maintenance, and a number of other things.

But is this the best time for those measures, given the cash crunch that many companies face?

Marshall says that’s beside the point. Consultations for the province’s new safety rules started nearly two years ago. “Nobody could have predicted a recession would come at the same time,” she says. “Do you hold off, or do you implement because it’s the right thing to do?”

Advice

Smale has advice for health and safety professionals working with financial restraints. For example, instead of simply fighting for a bigger safety-training budget, conduct a risk assessment to identify hazards and deficiencies, to ensure the budget prioritizes the most pressing aspects.

Always aim to foster a “people-first” culture, wherein staff members feel that their safety is paramount, he adds.

That’s particularly important during challenging economic times. Smale references a study from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, indicating that while measurements sometimes show decreased workplace injuries during recessions, the drop actually corresponds with a decrease in reporting —employees don’t want to say anything if they get hurt, because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.

“Everybody’s watching the bottom line,” Smale says. “But at the same time, people have to know I’m looking out for them.”

Marshall points out that it’s important to maintain the dotted line between safety and revenues. “There are a lot of dangers around pulling back on safety in a recession,” she says.

Staff members may be nervous and distracted because they’re preoccupied with job security; that means they could be in danger of making safety mistakes. The more incidents an organization has, the more it has to spend to cover the productivity losses. And at the end of the day, clients might not want to work with an organization with a poor safety record.

Marchand says Canada Safety Council has helped organizations implement training and incentive programs that save money and improve safety. In one case, a trucking firm instigated a fuel-economy rebate program. Trained to drive economically — no sudden starts and stops, maintain speed limits, et cetera — employees were eligible for additional pay representing 60 per cent of the fuel savings that the company witnessed.

The program rewarded good driving, helped reduce fuel costs and also helped reduce maintenance expenses, because the vehicles weren’t being driven as hard as they once were. The safety angle: “The company had fewer collisions,” Marchand says.

It’s an illustration of the ways in which economic and protective measures go hand in hand. Smale, for one, is witnessing that phenomenon up close. He says his firm’s business is changing. In the past E.K. Gillin primarily provided straightforward safety training, now the firm is making money via train-the-trainer-type programs: instead of educating 40 people for thousands of dollars, the company teaches a handful of people for hundreds of dollars. The educated staffers help train their colleagues in turn. And while E.K. Gillin used to provide direct ergonomics programs, these days its clients include competitors looking to learn about the latest techniques.

“We’ve killed our ergonomic training service,” Smale says, explaining that his company is essentially selling its techniques to competitors.

But he isn’t concerned about the long-term impact. It will still take some time for E.K. Gillin’s competitor/customers to catch up with the newer courses and methods that the company employs. “I think we’re two to three years ahead of the curve.”

But all of our interviewees say companies that continue to give their safety training budgets short shrift will have trouble staying on top of things, especially as the recession peters out, revenues return, and the pace of work ramps up once more.

As Marshall points out, organizations can’t excuse themselves forever. “Recession or not, you’re still responsible for that life.”

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Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa. You can contact him at sdubowski@rogers.com

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