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Health and Safety Outlook 2012: Training for the future

By Mari-Len De Guzman

Their roles are evolving as the dynamics of the workplace change. Are health and safety professionals getting the right training to prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century?

Health and safety professionals today are faced with vast challenges in the workplace — from physical hazards to various psychosocial issues — and industry observers note the level of education they’re getting today may not be providing them enough ammunition to face these challenges.

Training for current and future health and safety practitioners needs to be revisited to ensure that the knowledge and skills being taught are reflective of the realities of the workplace today, according to industry experts participating in a recent discussion on trends and topics that affect the occupational health and safety realm.

“While I think there has been a lot of progress made, in particular with giving credibility to designations such as CRSP, I think we have a long way to go,” says Maureen Shaw, former president of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (now Workplace Safety and Prevention Services).

“We need to be ensuring that our people who are responsible for leading health and safety in the organization have the ability to look at the workplace in a much broader, higher level.”

Just teaching health and safety professionals the “basics” of OHS management just wouldn’t cut it anymore, says Shaw, because the dynamics of the workplace have vastly changed and the role of the safety manager has changed as well.

Employers today face increasing regulatory obligations with vast consequences to their company’s bottom-line, that they are turning more to field experts for guidance — the health and safety professional — and training plays an important role in making sure that they are ready to take on this new role.

“If we’re going to be looking at health and safety professionals having the ability to influence then they need to have that confidence. There need to be some additions to the training that (safety professionals) get,” says Shaw.

A better understanding of human behaviour, for example, is one area of professional training that needs to be enhanced for the safety practitioner, notes Dave Gouthro, an independent certified health and safety consultant based in Halifax.

Conventional training would tell a would-be OHS manager how to eliminate or minimize a hazard, what to tell workers about workplace hazards, and even the steps to take when a workplace incident or injury occurs.

This kind of knowledge, however, may not be enough for a safety professional to be highly effective at their job, Gouthro says.

“Rules don’t make people do things; it’s getting people to do things the way you want them to do it. I think that’s a better understanding of human behaviour.”

Behaviour-based safety is not a new concept, Gouthro adds, yet it’s not always applied extensively in the workplace. It plays a huge role in how people react in certain situations, and understanding behaviours both from the workers’ side and management side is a skill that an OHS professional should develop.

From advisor to leader

With the evolution of the workplace, has the role of a safety professional evolved as well?

In his role as manager for environmental, health and safety at Toronto Hydro, David Johnston works with a staff of health and safety practitioners, and he says what he finds lacking among these OHS neophytes is leadership.

“I have a great staff here that have graduate degrees, incredibly well-educated. But, man oh man, they have been brainwashed with this ‘advisor role’ so much,” notes Johnston. “It’s what they’re teaching at schools, ‘your job is to advise,’ but it’s not; it’s got to be to lead.”

Johnston says a good safety leader’s role has to go beyond advising and be more of a driver of programs and leading with passion — and they should be developing these leadership skills early on through their educational programs.

“One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career, from this older semi-retired health and safety professional from a petro-chemical company, and he told me, ‘if you’re going to be a good health and safety manager, you got to put your job on the line at least four times a year.’”

Words of wisdom that to Johnston meant safety leaders need to be passionate enough about what they do that they are prepared to defend it at all cost. It means assuming more of a leadership role than just an advisory role.

Guy Chenard, senior health and safety advisor at Ontario Power Generation, agrees with Johnston’s observation and adds that safety professionals need to, first and foremost, have a good understanding of what their role is in the organization.

“If management requires them to… improve their process or they want to bring down the lost time — I agree with leadership, leadership has to be there — but they have to understand what the role is and how they are going to influence management,” Chenard says.

If a safety professional does not understand his or her role, they will find it difficult to manage change where change is needed within the organization, he adds.

Vulnerable workers

A peek into the future tells these industry observers that the issue of mental health is going to be one of the biggest challenges of health and safety professionals in the workplace.

“I think where mental health is today is where safety was probably 50 years ago,” says Johnston. “We really need to provide some model or some manual for employers to be able to implement things to deal with (mental health issues).”

That “manual” may become available in 2012.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), in partnership with CSA Standards, is developing a new standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. Shaw, a member of the workforce advisory committee with the MHCC, says the standard is expected to be released by the end of 2012.

“I think it will be a push to have organizations pay some attention to the whole area of workplace stress, workplace depression, and our ability to recognize and to bring people into the workplace with mental illness, in the same way that we bring people into the workplace with other forms of illness or disability,” Shaw says.

Johnston noted, however, that organizations should be proactive about doing something about mental health in the workplace. Industry observers acknowledge that there is increasing trend that mental illness among workers is becoming a bigger issue for organizations. They need to start looking for best practices and standards to help them implement programs and policies that deal with mental illness, as early as possible.

Gathering relevant data about mental illness is a good place to start, he says, but they’re not always readily available. Benefits providers would likely have that information and employers should look to them as a resource.

“It’s not until you actually get those reports that you can then start to make the case — and it’s a no-brainer once you get those numbers,” Johnston says.

Another trend health and safety professionals are facing is the continuously aging workforce. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age and the economic downturn of the last few years is making them rethink their retirement plans for financial considerations. Older workers are delaying retirement and this presents certain health and safety challenges — particularly in more physically demanding tasks.

“Jobs don’t change because someone is older,” says Gouthro. “And so it’s not so much that there’s more injuries, but the injuries themselves, instead of being, say, a sore back, the younger worker may come back (to work) right away in a day or two, while the older worker might need a week.”

Again, the challenge for health and safety professionals is having a better understanding of the “multigenerational impact of employees in our workplaces.”

“And this is only going to get worse,” says Shaw. “As young people are coming with their own perception of the workplace, what the future workers are going to be demanding of the workplace.”

Health and safety professionals need to help build an organizational culture that is adaptable and takes many factors — such as demographics and human behaviour — into consideration when developing health and safety management systems. 

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