If there's one word that describes Jim Duthie in the eyes of his peers, it is "mentor."
As the safety and environment manager for manufacturing firm Valeant Pharmaceuticals in Steinbach, Man., Duthie has not only served as proponent of the company’s safety programs, but as a teacher of safety to whoever is willing to learn.
For people looking to make a career in health and safety, having Duthie as a mentor is “second to none,” says Priscilla Jones, a safety specialist at Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Jones nominated Duthie for the COS Safety Leader of the Year award.
“Jim, with his vast closet of knowledge and experience, is a mentor not only for those that have worked for him, but also those that he’s been employed by,” Jones says in her submission.
Tom Van Aarsen was one of the many who Duthie has mentored in the past.
“Gaining CRSP certification is tough — but with Jim’s guidance and tutoring, I was able to sail through it,” says Van Aarsen, who is now an environmental health and safety specialist at a pharmaceutical firm in Cambridge, Ont.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Watch Jim Duthie in action
Duthie came out as the winner in this year’s nationwide search for Safety Leader of the Year.
A 26-year health and safety veteran, Duthie has worked both sides of the occupational health and safety aisle: first as a health and safety inspector for the Manitoba government, then a health and safety manager for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) and subsequently for Valeant Pharmaceuticals, where he has been working for the last five years.
What he enjoyed most as a government health and safety inspector was being out in the community and meeting different people, Duthie says.
“I used to say one of the best parts about my job is I get to go to a different workplace everyday,” says Duthie. “I worked in a lot of areas I have never been before — woodworking, furniture making, window manufacturing — and it was all to me very interesting.”
This motivated him to pursue a career in health and safety, though it was not necessarily representative of his educational background.
Duthie has a degree in Zoology from Brandon University. After getting his degree, he worked for the City of Brandon’s engineering department where he was assigned to construction projects. He then became involved with the union and the union’s safety committee.
It was through his work in the safety committee that the opportunity to work as a health and safety officer for the provincial government arose.
Most of what Duthie knows about health and safety management he learned on the job. During the course of his safety career, he obtained his certificate in occupational safety from the University of Manitoba. He is also a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP).
Working in the OHS field opened Duthie’s mind to the realities of the workplace and his goal quickly turned into a purpose.
“As time wore on, my motivation became more in, ‘how can we stop some of the terrible toll that industrial accidents are having on people?’” Duthie explains.
In all those years as a government health and safety officer, Duthie found himself trying to find a “better way” for people to be more engaged in their own safety.
“I recognized that no matter where you work — whether in a farm or a factory, out in the field or indoors — the essential attitude of people all the way along is that they are just trying to get the job done the best they could with what they have available.”
The kind of provisions for people to work safely is what makes the difference between a safe and unsafe workplace, he says.
Working at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) — from 2001 to 2008 — gave Duthie an opportunity to build a health and safety management system from the ground up. At the time, the health care sector was lacking in compliance with OHS legislation, Duthie says.
“The department of labour at that time has started really paying attention to health care. And so there was quite a few visits happening around the region… a lot of the facilities were getting quite extensive orders.”
By the time Duthie left WRHA in 2008, he has reached the position of manager for safety, health and environment — the first at WRHA.
A former member of his team at the WRHA recalls Duthie’s “patience and mentorship” at a time when the organization was struggling to meet OHS compliance.
“Without Jim’s patience and mentorship, it would have been a long haul for me as a new safety co-ordinator,” says Ethelinda Padua, now a health and safety specialist with the University of Winnipeg.
As safety and environment manager at Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Duthie looks after the safety of about 500 employees. He says he was fortunate when he joined the company because he was coming into an organization with an already established health and safety system.
One of the areas Duthie started to focus on, and felt needed a little extra attention at Valeant, was ergonomics. He encouraged the two members of his safety team — one of whom is Jones — to get trained and certified in ergonomics.
Duthie has been trained in ergonomics through the course of his career, but he needed to enable his team to make good judgments around ergonomic improvements. He felt it essential for his staff to be trained and certified in ergonomics as well.
Ergonomics has become part of the job hazard analysis for any new piece of equipment or any new or changing process within Valeant’s work environment, Duthie says.
“Also, for any incidents relating to ergonomics we review the whole situation and look if there’s some way we can improve ergonomics in that area,” Duthie explains. “We’re not looking to replace every workstation with completely adjustable ergonomic equipment — although we have done that as well — but we also look at reducing the amount of physical strain people have to go through to do their jobs.”
Because of the physical diversity in the workforce, the ergonomic requirements of each worker may be different even though they are doing the same job, Duthie says. It is important to educate workers on the various ways they can make their workspace and work habits ergonomically sound.
Communication goes both ways at Valeant, says Duthie, with the safety message coming from both management and workers. Workers are always encouraged to bring up issues and concerns about health and safety, and sometimes, even come up with suggestions for improvement, he says.
“You need to look at the people who do the work for the solutions and give them more than a pat on the back when they come up with them, but also encourage them so that it feeds down the line,” says Duthie.
Duthie takes advantage of every opportunity to talk with workers about workplace safety. At Valeant’s weekly “town hall” — a staff meeting held every Wednesday where leaders from the company are given an opportunity to talk to employees — Duthie is a frequent speaker.
He uses these town hall meetings to communicate trends, issues, concerns, statistics and upcoming training and events related to health and safety.
“It’s only 15 to 20 minutes and we want to make it interesting and fun,” says Duthie. “It can’t be just a ‘work safe or you’ll get fired’ kind of presentation. It has to be interesting.”
The yearly North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH) Week — held the first week of May — is another opportunity for Duthie to communicate and celebrate safety with his workers. Duthie heads a planning committee that plans and produces a week full of activities aimed at promoting safety awareness among workers, both on and off the job. Valeant’s NAOSH Week celebrations have also earned the company multiple awards in the past.
One of the more visible improvements in Valeant’s health and safety culture is the openness of its workers to bring up any health and safety concerns. Duthie says this is a consequence of his own approach to safety management: spending time with people.
“I believe that as a safety person you can’t just sit in the safety office and review statistics. I believe you have to get out there, talk to people, see them at lunch, get to know the people,” Duthie says.
With the combination of town hall meetings, safety celebrations and personal conversations, Valeant has raised the profile of safety across the organization, Duthie says. These achievements, however, would not have been possible without complete management support.
The company’s vice-president, Tony Martinez — to whom Duthie reports — actively supports the company’s safety initiatives, Duthie says. He is constantly seen around the plant doing a walk-through, and conducts safety inspections with Duthie or with other junior management.
“I think the biggest, most important thing in any workplace — no matter where it is, in my experience — if the management supports and leads safety and makes it clear to supervisors and managers and… to the workers that they are involved and interested in safety and that it matters, you will have a safer workplace,” Duthie says.
At Valeant, management involvement in safety is evident. All of the company directors are members of the main health and safety committee. Each of the subcommittees also has one member from the management team.
When it comes to safety, Duthie says, the management at Valeant Pharmaceuticals is “not just saying it, it’s doing it.”
“Walk the talk. That is actively done here and I think that is probably one of the keys to success here.”
One of the challenges many health and safety professionals face in the workplace is being able to effect change. Most of the time, safety practitioners ask people to change the way they have traditionally done their job for the sake of safety.
That’s not always an easy sell, says Duthie.
“As a government inspector you write the order, you check for compliance, you go back. Are they complying? You walk away and… you could believe that that’s going to be good forever or it might be just that they go back to the way they were.”
Working as a safety professional for a company, however, has given him more flexibility to make the kind of changes he only hoped for when he was working on the other side of the fence, says Duthie.
No matter which side of the OHS aisle you work, however, there is only one ultimate goal — keeping workplaces and workers safe, Duthie says.
To attain this goal, he adds, understanding human nature is key.
“You’ve got to remember that every person is an individual,” Duthie says. “They have individual lives and needs, they have individual understanding and attitude, and you have to actually look at it that way, rather than the sort of generalization that I think sometimes people get into.”
And the only way to uncover this individualism and understand what people’s needs are is to talk to them and see things from their point of view, he says.
This kind of wisdom is something Duthie learned from all those years of investigating incidents.
“When I would do incident investigation for workplace safety and I would be interviewing a manager or a witness or even the injured worker, they all had a story to tell, they all had perspective on what had happened. It does not necessarily mean it’s the right or the wrong perspective. It just means that here’s what they saw, and to do the job right (as a safety manager) you have to understand what their vision is, what they saw, what they believe they saw,” Duthie explains.
At this point in Duthie’s OHS career, retirement is on the horizon. But as much as he contemplates what he would do after retirement, he is also thinking about how he would leave a legacy for the next safety manager who would take his place.
He plans to accomplish this by building a solid safety and health management system for Valeant Pharmaceuticals.
“That is mainly what I want right now. So if I were to leave the company, I hope to leave behind good structure for whoever the next safety person is going to be,” says Duthie.