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Regulator vs. employer: How to achieve harmony when two sides collide

By Mari-Len De Guzman

A panel discussion on how to build a healthy working relationship between regulators and employers brought out some interesting perspectives. Safety professionals attending this year's CSSE Professional Development Conference in Whistler, B.C., heard from both sides of the occupational health and safety aisle. Turns out, the two are not so different after all.

WHISTLER, B.C. — Safety experts agree that a good relationship between employers and regulators can contribute significantly to a safe and healthy workplace. How does one foster such relationship?

In a panel discussion at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering’s Professional Development Conference, representatives from both sides of the occupational health and safety aisle — the employers and the regulators — discussed some of the elements that contribute to a successful relationship between the two.

“Overall, the most important aspect of an ideal working relationship is one where there is mutual respect between the safety professional and the regulator,” said Al Johnson, speaking from the regulator side. Johnson is a regional director with WorkSafeBC.

He admits the dynamics can vary depending on the situation that caused a regulator to visit the workplace — whether it is responding to a fatality, a complain or just doing a planned or follow-up inspection — but if there is mutual respect and understanding of what the regulator is trying to achieve, a better outcome can be achieved.

Another regulator representative, Tom Abercrombie, added that honesty is another essential element of a good working relationship between the employer and the regulator. Abercrombie is a health care inspector with the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

“Regulators can’t come in to the workplace with a hidden agenda,” he said. “You have to have mutual respect and honesty.”

He pointed out that both regulators and employers, through their safety managers, should be upfront about workplace situations, which enables both parties to understand where each other is coming from.

Two other members of the panel — both representing the employer side — agreed with Johnson and Abercrombie.

“I think there is negative connotation with regards to regulators arriving on site. You need to look at it more on a positive aspect. The biggest thing is to understand why they are there — communicate,” said Shawn Henn, a corporate HSE manager overseeing some 1,500 employees in Canada, the U.S. and overseas.

Henn pointed out that in building that relationship it’s not just important to be able to communicate but to listen as well, and understand that “we are all in this together,” he said.

Sam Chauhan, OHS manager for the City of Surrey in B.C., agreed saying it’s important to develop a relationship that is based on trust, because after all, they both have a common goal of making workplaces safer. In fact, Chauhan said he welcomes workplace inspections as they provide an opportunity for identifying other hazards that may not have been evident before.

“It’s much better to have an inspection than to have an accident investigation or fatality investigation,” Chauhan said. “I think that it’s important to get outside eyes… they help us identify gaps.”

Although it is the ideal situation, achieving a healthy, harmonious working relationship is sometimes easier said than done, particularly if both parties are not seeing eye-to-eye.

Chauhan noted that while the more senior and experienced regulators are typically easier to work with, the younger newer government recruits tend to be “more challenging — they want to prove themselves and they usually come in with a ‘safety cop’ attitude.”

Even in situations like that, both Shawn and Chauhan, stressed it’s important to keep a cool head and try to make each other understand where the other is coming from.

“Nobody likes to be told that they’re wrong,” Shawn said. “But make sure you communicate why you disagree, try to see things from their perspective, make sure you do your homework, and have the (information ready) to back you up.”

Both Johnson and Abercrombie — speaking on the regulator side — suggest that in those types of situation, the employer or the safety manager should speak up, in a respectful manner, and tell the regulator what they feel about how the situation is being handled.

“If you do encounter that, (then) you do have to talk about what the ideal relationship is. I think you have a duty to talk to the regulator ... As health and safety people you have a duty to talk about what kind of relationship you would like to have,” said Abercrombie.

Even when the regulator and employer disagree, things must be resolved in an objective manner. The regulator has a duty to define what the contravention is and point out the specific hazard, and the employer needs to be transparent and upfront.

In many cases, Johnson said, there are advantages to dealing with newer or younger officers.

“Some of the newer officers are more open to dialogue and may take you down the road that a more senior officer have not taken you before,” he said. “Our officers are not experts in your workplace. Something to think about is that those new officers are probably as nervous about being in your worksite as you are experiencing new officers as well.”

Whatever the disagreements may be, the bottom-line and the secret to a successful working relationship are mutual trust and respect. With those in play, they may agree or agree to disagree — in which case the employers do have other options to consider.

“Talking about it and seeking that clarity (is key),” Johns said. “At the end of that interaction if there is still disagreement then the employer has a formal route of appealing an order, and then the informal route of talking about it again.”

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