Why university president wants to build the Harvard of workplace safety

Wolfgang Zimmerman reflects on suffering a serious injury at work and why there needs to be an attitude shift in the industry

Why university president wants to build the Harvard of workplace safety

Wolfgang Zimmerman has a long-term dream – to build the Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Science (PCU-WHS) into the Harvard of workplace safety.

A first-of-its-kind special-purpose university dedicated to workplace health and safety, the non-profit headquartered in Port Alberni in British Columbia delivers education on the importance of occupational safety.

Zimmerman, President, PCU-WHS, believes the entire life cycle of workplace health is more than worth of such an institution, which was established through an act of the provincial legislature with cross-party support.

Currently, the University delivers a Bachelor of Disability Management as well as advanced certificate in disability management. It also offers a whole host of continuing education modules.

Zimmerman says that PCU-WHS is working at the moment on new educational programming in workplace health leadership “to help understand how health and safety and how health promotion and return to work are all tied together”.

This is particularly well-timed as more and more organizations are moving toward integrating Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) policies within their corporate structure.

Return to work

Zimmerman highlights the link between disability, poverty and employment, and the fact 1.4 million Canadians are living in poverty – a large portion of which have some form of mental or physical disability.

Read more: Causes of worker’s death revealed

It is still incredibly difficult for differently abled Canadians to access employment in Canada. In addition, Zimmerman says that the longer a disabled individual is out of work, the harder it is to once again access the labour market. Furthermore, very few people with disabilities are in senior roles within organizations.

This is why so much of his advocacy – and so much of the University’s focus – is on disability management.

“Return to work and getting back into the workforce has got to be the final outcome,” says Zimmerman.

Better accessibility

And Zimmerman speaks from personal experience. Zimmerman got injured in the first week of his job in 1977. He got hit by a 50foot Alder tree and incurred a spinal fracture.

Nevertheless, his company was supportive and took responsibility for the accident:

“I was extremely fortunate that six months later, [they] were looking at ways of how I could get back to work in the forestry department,” says Zimmerman.

The union was also supportive, and together they worked on ways to make the site more accessible. In addition, after he got hurt, the whole training regime changed.

After he started working again, he got into workplace health and safety.

Zimmerman says that it is not all companies that would offer such accommodations to their employees and that there needs to be an attitude shift:

“Accessibility is not the issue, attitude is the issue.”

He emphasises that for those who are injured on the job and become disabled, a good return to work program is as important as training or a safety program:

“If we have a good return to work program we can also improve the health and safety of an organization […] you will be able to see where all of your cases are coming from and be able to create a prevention program.”

Ultimately, while some injuries may be inevitable, many aren’t and many could be prevented through a more rounded approach to safety.

Says Zimmerman: “It’s always a tragedy to look at a review of what could have been improved and should have been improved.”