Skip to content

Building a safety culture - one home at a time

By Mari-Len De Guzman
Stewart Hardacre, president & CEO, Habitat for Humanity Canada

Stewart Hardacre is the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada. He talked to Canadian Occupational Safety about how the non-profit organization is managing safety at its build sites, with a diverse workforce that's largely made up of volunteers.

Six years ago, Stewart Hardacre made a pit stop during a hiking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru that changed his life.

He decided to give a little something back on his trek to South America, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Bolivia.

“I came back home and I couldn’t stop talking about having that experience,” Hardacre says. He became a volunteer for his local Habitat affiliate, a move that was the start of his climb up the not-for-profit corporate ladder.

Hardacre is now the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada, yet he still looks back to that time in Bolivia as one of his most unforgettable.

“It completely overwhelmed my trek to Machu Picchu,” the chief executive recalls. “Habitat volunteers often describe (their experience) as getting back so much more than (they) put in. As a volunteer, that’s the way I felt.”

As CEO of a not-for-profit organization that employs tens of thousands of volunteers across Canada, Hardacre faces unique challenges when it comes to safety. For one thing, the workplace is always moving and the workers are constantly changing.

For another, regulatory compliance requirements vary across provinces.

“In some provinces we are subject to injury reporting requirements. In some provinces (we are not) because we are using volunteers,” Hardacre says. “Some provinces have regulations that don’t clearly include volunteers, some clearly include volunteers, and others you’re not sure.”

Faced with this challenge, Habitat tries to abide by the “highest possible standard in and around health and safety practices” to ensure compliance with what Hardacre refers to as the “patchwork of provincial health and safety regulations.”

With volunteer workers as young as 16 and as old as 80, Habitat takes training and education seriously. A typical build site can have up to 50 volunteers performing various tasks. All volunteers must undergo full health and safety training before they are allowed to step on a building site, with no exception — not even for the chief executive of a big corporate donor.

Hardacre points to one previous instance in which a corporate donor invited a team of its workers to volunteer at a Habitat build site. The workers had gone through health and safety training; the company’s president, however, had not. This president decided to visit the build site, but was not allowed in.

“He wasn’t very happy,” Hardacre recalls. “We knew it could potentially endanger that donor relationship, but he wasn’t allowed to come on to the build site because he has not gone through the training process required for volunteers.”

Same standards

There’s a misconception that exists that not-for-profit charity organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, are somehow not held to the same health and safety standards as other corporate organizations. But nothing can be farther from the truth, Hardacre says.

“Our success is critical to our existence. We need to treat health and safety appropriately at all levels throughout the organization,” he says.

Habitat relies on donors and volunteers to continue to provide affordable housing to thousands of low-income families. A poor safety record would almost certainly destroy Habitat’s reputation, so the well-being of volunteers at build sites is of utmost priority.

Because of the nature of its workforce, training and education on things like proper health and safety practices, their rights and responsibilities and the hazards of a particular build site are very important.

To date, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 2,000 homes for Canadian families. 

Training the Habitat way

Habitat for Humanity’s building program works through local affiliates in various locations across Canada. Each affiliate has its own set of training processes for volunteers, with guidance from the national office.

“Most of our affiliates have dedicated health and safety individuals at the build site whose job is to monitor any risk on the build site, overseeing people’s practices, making sure they’re not doing anything unsafe,” Hardacre says.

The national office has its own health and safety staff, tasked with developing training and program materials for the affiliates and their volunteers.

Volunteers and staff are also educated on incident reporting requirements.

“We’re really trying to empower the individual to make these decisions, and we do that through our training and helping them identify what those risks are. For us, that is the strongest culture that we can have because it’s kind of owned at every level,” Hardacre says.

Leading by example

As an organization, Habitat for Humanity has been an active participant in advocacies involving workplace health and safety. The organization is one of the founding signatories to the Conference Board of Canada’s Health and Safety Leadership Charter.

The charter is a declaration of commitment by top executives from various organizations to the ideals of promoting health and safety in the workplace.

“As CEO, you are not the only player, but you’re a critical player in terms of many good health and safety programs,” says Hardacre.

Even though he is Habitat for Humanity Canada’s top executive, Hardacre still makes a point to go out and work at build sites a few times a year.

“What I felt down in Bolivia over six years ago is something that I think is unique about Habitat in terms of experience. It’s very powerful and I don’t want to lose it,” he says.

“I know by doing my work back in the office that more houses are getting built or more affiliates are serving families in Canada; but… swinging the hammers at the build site is where the real magic happens.”

Add Comment