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Vancouver 2010 passes on safety torch for future Olympics

By Michelle Morra

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) was a start-up employer in 2005. It would become a unique sort of employer, one that had a single purpose and would cease to exist once the job was done. It was in the process of forming a tight team of hard-working, keen people.

In those early days, VANOC’s then-small organizing committee of about 50 people became aware, through the Olympic grapevine, of occupational injuries and fatalities in previous Games in other countries.

“Athens had had double digit deaths in the putting on of their Olympic games, which is something we really did not want to see happen in our Games,” says Donna Wilson, executive vice-president of workforce and sustainability at VANOC.

Committee members set out to create a worker health and safety program. For starters, they wanted to learn safety tips and lessons from past Olympics.

They found none.

“It was shocking to realize there was nothing there,” says Wilson. “We were looking for trends, statistics, and got a little bit from Sydney of 2000 but it was not complete. We were unable to find anything else.”

Meanwhile, two major construction projects were in the works. VANOC workers would build the Whistler Sliding Centre, as well as the Whistler Nordic Centre for cross-country skiing, ski jumping, biathlon and Nordic combined competitions. 

A separate group, VANOC’s overlay department, would eventually erect the various temporary structures needed for the Olympics, including podiums, generators, scaffolding, camera platforms for the media, stages for the awarding of medals, trailers, thousands of metres of cable and fencing, hundreds of tents, as well as dining halls, warming areas and thousands of seats in temporary grandstands.

As on any grand-scale construction site, there would be hazards. Some people would work with cranes, electrical equipment, mobile equipment, or on scaffolds up to 200 feet high.

The Olympics also have office workers responsible for web development, public relations and other tasks. Their workstations and practices, too, must comply with health and safety regulations.

VANOC needed to minimize hazards and ensure adequate safety training for everyone — no exceptions. Management wanted to create a safety culture among its staff, contractors, subcontractors and volunteers. This workforce would come from varying work backgrounds, some from other jurisdictions with different safety laws and practices.

“We knew we needed to do something different to set ourselves up to potentially have the safest Games ever,” says Wilson.

Vancouver and beyond


VANOC consulted with the senior leadership team at WorkSafe BC, the province’s workplace safety regulator. Together they formed the first-ever partnership between an Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee and the health and safety regulator in its jurisdiction, with the goal of establishing a new level of health and safety awareness, monitoring and reporting for the 2010 Games and beyond.

Al Johnson, regional director, construction services at WorkSafe BC, assigned a WorkSafe BC officer to each of the venues to work with the workers on site. Part of each officer’s role was to raise safety awareness and educate the workforce on BC rules.

“VANOC brought together a lot of individuals to make up their organization,” says Johnson. “People at each venue, including managers, have done other Olympic Games. They know what they’re doing with respect to setting up and getting things done, but they don’t know as much regarding what we expect.”

There was a learning curve. Olympic workers had to understand what B.C. regulations say about the rights and responsibilities of managers, supervisors and workers, and how to incorporate health and safety into every aspect of the work. For example, a tent expert from Switzerland or a scaffold expert from Germany, who might not normally wear fall protection, would have to wear it in B.C. when working at heights.

WorkSafe BC did not do the training but ensured it was done according to B.C. law. While a partner, the department had a clear role as the enforcer. VANOC was the prime contractor and had a responsibility to ensure health and safety on each of its many worksites.

Wilson says one of the most pivotal things that resulted from the partnership was an orientation program called “Legacy of Safety.” Under this proactive health and safety program sponsored by WorkSafe BC, Games-specific health and safety awareness sessions would be mandatory for all VANOC employees, contractors and subcontractors, as well as for approximately 25,000 volunteers and, where possible, the employees of VANOC contractors.

Here’s where the legacy part comes in. As a safety culture was growing among the workforce, VANOC started tracking inspections and training since the start of its construction phase in 2006, so it would have something to pass along to the next Olympic Games. As a result, future organizing committees will have access to Vancouver’s safety training modules for Olympic construction crews and office workers, as well as all statistical information on VANOC’s safety record.

That kind of transparency has proven to be a positive safety trend in Canada. Oil and gas, mining and other sectors have achieved industry-wide safety improvements as employers have become more open to sharing information about work hazards, and even injury and fatality statistics.

The Legacy of Safety works in other ways, too. Besides benefitting future Games, VANOC aims to inspire other workplaces in B.C. with its program. Furthermore, much of what the Olympic workers have learned about safety could very well be passed along to other jobs in other parts of the world.

“We will have about 50,000 people, including paid staff, volunteers, third-party contractors, that have all had to pay attention to this higher level, this culture of safety,” Wilson says. “All those people will go off and work somewhere else.”

Positive signs

At the time of writing, she had seen positive signs in the attitude of workers.

“We have noticed that some of our international people kind of go ‘Woah! This is different,’” Wilson says. “There’s a lot more emphasis on safety than they are accustomed to, but we are very strong on this. They are aware that we’re serious and they are paying attention.”

The construction phase has required a lot of supervision and guidance, but during the Games WorkSafe BC construction services will keep a low profile.

“In February we don’t want to be doing any proactive inspections of these sites,” says Johnson. “But we do have a responsibility to respond to complaints or, heaven forbid, respond to a fatality.”

The department will again be an important presence after the games, when all temporary structures will have to be dismantled as efficiently and safely as possible.

The Olympic Games celebrate a spirit of competition. For a health and safety program, that can mean having to compete with the games themselves for people’s attention. Setting up an international event on deadline brings time pressures, excitement and other factors that can distract from safe, careful work.

Growth challenges

One big challenge at VANOC has been the growth of the workforce – and the speed at which it grew. 

From planning to construction and eventually to the actual Games, this evolution requires construction workers, installers, riggers, drivers, office workers and a slew of volunteers who must manage the flow of crowds, drive skidoos, move equipment and fulfill various other roles typical at a mountain ski resort.

Every year, VANOC’s workforce doubled in size. In a relatively short time it went from 1,000 to 30,000 staff and volunteers, all of whom had to receive safety training. That’s why management wanted to build a culture as early as possible, so that training became mandatory and automatic for every individual.

Another challenge was that some of those people have worked large events in the past and are new to such rigid requirements.

“They’ll question why,” says Wilson. “They’ll test you. So it’s important for VANOC to stay strong.”

In October 2007, VANOC’s Legacy of Safety was given a North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH) Week award in the Special Project category. Wilson is grateful for the partnership with WorkSafe BC and credits VANOC CEO John Furlong for supporting the concept from the start and helping to generate buy-in at all levels.

Efforts are paying off. Contractors are demanding that other contractors get on board with the program, and Wilson has heard reports that those who refuse to follow safety procedures have been removed from the worksites.

“I see that as a very strong indicator that we’re living up to our standard,” she says.


Michelle Morra is an award-winning journalist and former COS editor. You may contact her at


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