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50 shades of safety

By John McMahon

Here’s to all those unsung heroes who sometimes get an undeserved bad rap. I am talking about the people who have taken ownership of your health and safety — the men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting others from harm.

Is the word “hero” too strong a noun? 

Shouldn't we recognize them the same way we honour emergency responders like firefighters, paramedics and police?

Our health and safety professionals are operating slightly upstream of the burning fire, crash scene or store robbery, focusing mainly on prevention rather than cure. They skillfully weigh the hazards and risks, and figure out the best way to do things without unduly putting people’s health, safety and well-being at risk.

We continue to injure people in large numbers. And too many of those injuries are manmade and preventable. Too often we accept these preventable injuries as just a part of life or the cost of doing business.

Work-related injuries and sick days, early retirements, loss of skilled staff, absenteeism and high insurance premiums due to work-related accidents and diseases make life difficult and costly for business. Yet many of these tragedies are preventable through the implementation of sound prevention, reporting and inspection practices.

According to Norm Keith, a partner at Toronto-based law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, across Canada, CEOs are now being targeted for prosecution for safety violations. Public, media and political pressure on OHS regulators to hold CEOs accountable is growing.

Social media coverage of workplace incidents, injury and death is having an impact on the exposure of corporations and their CEOs to increased expectations, criticism and blame.

Occupational health and safety statutes in every jurisdiction in Canada now have the potential of putting a CEO or senior executive in jail. While the big stick may be part of the answer, why can't we open our minds to learning more about things that can harm us and finding solutions to avoid them?

In recent times we have also seen examples where health and safety has been used to excuse behaviour and decisions that may have been perceived as unpopular. British prime minister David Cameron put it well: “Regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words ‘health and safety’ are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.”

We have amassed an enormous amount of knowledge about what is good and bad for us over the years. My challenge is that, armed with this knowledge, we still seem to have trouble reducing the frequency and severity of injuries and ill-health we continue to suffer.

More often than not there seems to be a simple lack of appreciation and understanding of the hazards and risks involved.

The role of the health and safety guy or gal is not to prevent you from doing your job or cost your business money. It is to allow great things to happen without risking people’s health, safety or well-being.

I offer thanks and kudos to those communities, agencies, employers and individuals who have embraced health and safety and are enjoying the many benefits of having done so. Through your continued example we will make this world a better place.

So what do you think: Does this hero status we've agreed to afford the health and safety professional, deserve a shot at an action packed Hollywood block buster? Something tells me that they may have lots of surplus popcorn down at the local cinema at the premier of "The Need for Speed Bumps” or “Fifty Shades of Safety.”

But you can do something.

The next time you see a health and safety guy or gal please, resist the temptation to think about them as a threat to your bottom line or your business.

Rather, pause for a second and remember they are there because they care about protecting and helping you and yours to stay healthy and safe.

John McMahon

John McMahon is the executive director of SafetyDriven, a not-for-profit health and safety association in British Columbia. He specializes in occupational health and safety and has dedicated his career to public and occupational health and safety. Throughout his career he’s held senior executive, safety and risk management advisory roles in transportation, logistics, distribution, aviation, retail, wholesale and hospitality. He has also worked as a government inspector in food safety, environmental protection, and health and safety enforcement in the United Kingdom. He holds his Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP) designation and is a chartered member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (CMIOSH) in the U.K. He also holds a degree in environmental health and an MBA from the University of Glasgow. Visit for more information.
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