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Confessions of a safety packrat

By Mari-Len De Guzman

I have several boxes of OHS binders from clients and former employers. These documents are essentially records of safety management systems and provide a real history lesson on the development and maturation of OHS through the last thirty years.

Probably to no one’s surprise, my collection of OHS binders is really many versions of the same document. Here’s what I found to be common in all of these examples:

Every binder starts with the same type of statement: “Safety is important here at XYZ corporation.” These fundamental statements of commitment have not significantly changed over the last three decades.

There is an internal responsibility management system. The next important part of the binder is where we organize our thoughts about our OHS management system. Here are the common themes about how we establish responsibility:

• We’re all in this together so we all have a part to play.

• We all have defined responsibilities.

• We have some tools and processes we need to use.

• We have resources available to help us.

Accountability is the key to getting things done. This is where I first note a key change over the last 30 years. More so today than in the past, these binders are defining accountability associated with responsibilities. To tell a manager they are responsible for doing a safety task is only half of the formula. It’s important to tell responsible people that they will be held accountable. Hopefully these accountabilities are tied to their performance appraisal system and “at-risk” compensation package.

Manage the work environment. The things and places where humans do work are potential sources of injury and illness. We need to pay attention and manage to ensure that the risks of these things hurting people are minimized.

Manage peoples’ behaviours. There has been a great deal of talk about safe behaviour over the past decade or so. Human-based, people-based, culture-based — all these terms are fundamentally describing the same things: How people are and behave matters a great deal to their safety.

Training is universally mentioned in all of the OHS binder examples. What has changed over the past three decades is a shift from trying to manage attitude to a clear shift to managing behaviours. Training employees on what they need to do to be safe is important in ensuring no one gets hurt. The other important part is to ensure that they actually adopt the behaviours that they learned in the training.

Measure and report. There has been a distinctive shift from the focus of measuring outcomes to a measurement of leading indicators of safety. The method of measuring using negative measures of safety (or lack of safety) — number of injuries, days lost, severity and frequency rates — has been replaced by a better understanding of what we do to make a place safe and healthy. Measuring and rewarding the accomplishment of safety activities (leading indicators) is much more the focus of the more modern OHS binders.

Learn from our mistakes through investigation. What is evident in these evolving binders is that the level of complexity and process has changed over the years. Some could view this as a positive development. I’ll save my comments on making this too complex for another article.

Talk about the issues. Communication through work group meetings is a long-standing technique that not only demonstrates that safety is important to us, but it gives us an opportunity to exchange concerns and ideas. There is a trend to expand our engagement to all of our people rather than the historic approach of including only a select group of safety committee members.

The Internet. This is obviously the major change one can observe. The Internet has had an impact on OHS in a large way. It’s become a large part of many corporate safety management systems and facilitated communication about safety issues that simply wasn’t possible 15 years ago. The natural caution is that just because it’s on the Net doesn’t mean it’s right. The Internet has increased the amount of good information available to us along with a similar amount of bad information.

So if your task is to develop your company’s first OHS binder or to enhance the one you already have, give a colleague a call. They probably have an extra one lying around that you can use to start your draft. If you’d like to download an example feel free to go to our website (

The Future

I may, in some future cleaning of my hard copy files, take the time to scan the pages of these binders and finally end my dependence on shelving units and binders to store these paper versions of historic OHS management approaches — but I seriously doubt it. There still remains for me a sense of history in seeing the words on paper.

Go ahead. Call me a packrat. I’m used to it!

Alan D. Quilley is the author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results and the president of Safety Results Ltd., a Sherwood Park, Alberta OH&S consulting company. You can reach him at aquilley@

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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