Failure in Alberta

Many people working in Alberta have been critical of the continued commitment of huge amounts of resources and time to the Certificate of Recognition program (COR) which has been producing questionable outcomes for the past decade.

Over 18 months ago, I personally visited then Minister of Alberta Employment and Immigration Hector Goudreau to discuss the failure of the COR to significantly change the safety of Alberta worksites. I described a program that allowed the worst performing companies to earn what was believed by some as the “passport to doing business in Alberta.” I asked the minister to personally review the results of this program and order an independent review of the process of obtaining and maintaining a COR certificate.

This lack of performance is not a new occurrence. I have included Alberta’s lack of results over the past two decades in many of my conference presentations and in my 2005 book, The Emperor Has No Hart Hard – Achieving REAL Workplace Safety Results. Five years ago, it was obvious to those who looked closely that this COR process was failing. At the time, the worst employers were being targeted by the Alberta government’s health and safety officers, and being all but forced into obtaining a COR. The problem was that over one-third of the 700 worst employers in Alberta (as measured by their injury results) already had a COR.

Having worked and consulted in the Alberta OH&S system for the last 30 years let me describe why, in my opinion, the COR process failed.

Necessary but not sufficient condition
The COR process of building a company safety program based on a set of arbitrary standards for document and auditing that program was based on the traditional belief that safety is largely about policies, procedures and processes.

The OH&S program creation and implementation is usually done with the help of internal OH&S expertise or external consultants. In essence, a binder of safety intentions is created.

In my previous articles I have discussed the importance of this “company OH&S intention.” It is fundamental to the process of achieving safety excellence. The evidence is overwhelming that this is what is called a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for a company to truly become a safe company. Simply passing an audit that measures your company’s intention to be safe doesn’t mean you will be safe and not injure many of your workers. It takes much more than just paper to make a place of work achieve safety excellence.

Wrong measurements
The problem in Alberta was that the “intention binder” became more important than the process that built the binder. Creating a safe and healthy workplace requires a commitment of time and money to create a culture and positive accountability system that makes safe work possible. It requires that the company create a safe work environment and set of safe behaviours that can be seen in not only the results (less injuries and illness) but be viewed in the process of work. Very safe companies not only have the documented process of creating safety, but they can demonstrate by the way they work that safety is the “way it is around here.” The result of that commitment of working safely is that very few people get hurt and the companies doing this “safety creation” can work long periods of time without anyone being injured or becoming ill.

In Alberta over the last two decades, we have convinced companies that earning and maintaining a COR would not only reduce injuries but reduce your insurance costs significantly. We have built a system to rebate WCB premiums to companies that successfully built and audited their OH&S program.

The problem was that the audit itself was never tested in an evidence-based way. If you examine the Alberta COR audit closely you will see that standards like the requirement for all hazards to be identified and documented are there. Further in the document, you will also see that it is possible to get full marks on that audit section with only 51 per cent of your workers working safely.

I have long asked those who would listen: “Where is the evidence for that?” The answer is simply, we had none when we created it. Now that we’ve proven that even the worst performing companies in Alberta can pass this test, it’s obvious that this doesn’t produce what the program was intended to produce, which is reduce worker injuries.

In fact, when you subtract the influence that increased effort on early return-to-work programs and reclassification of lost time claims to medical aid only claims have had on the outcome numbers in Alberta, you’ll find that Alberta’s injury reductions have been somewhat artificial. These artificial “positive” results do not support the ever-expanding push over the last decade to increase the number of companies obtaining and maintaining a COR. There has been an increase in the number COR companies from 1,000 in 1997 to over 7,000 companies at last count. It’s obvious that doing anything in safety for over a decade by increasing human effort by 700 per cent should have resulted in much more significant change in results.

If the COR process was a leading indicator of safe companies then the worst companies in the province could not obtain one. Period!

What now?
In the ongoing effort to provide safe and healthy working environments and cultures, companies from large to small are constantly looking for the secret to OH&S success. In this search for success, there are many different ideas and approaches that promise to get companies to that ultimate goal of safely doing the work that they do.

What is interesting to me is that many of these prescriptions for safety excellence are based on little or no scientific evidence. Usually, these standards were established through well-meaning anonymous groups of experts who were basically using their instincts to establish the way to operate in hopes that the outcomes will be safe and healthy workplaces with very low exposures to hazards, and hence very little injury and illness among workers and/or contractors.

What makes logical sense to me is to find very safe companies and ask them what they do to achieve their success. The old saying, “Do what I do and you’ll get what I get,” seems to ring true here. So the key to success is to do what successfully safe companies do and avoid doing what unsafe, unsuccessful companies do to increase the chances that your company will experience similar success.

So, what do very safe companies do? Here are a few key features in addition to their “safety binder of intention”:
•    Success follows when companies make their “safety intentions” true through observable and measurable actions of the management and staff
•    Success requires responsibility and accountability to be managed positively
•    Safety legislation is complied with and most often exceeded
•    Measuring and rewarding safety creating activities lead to success
•    Ownership of creating safety is a personal commitment of the management and staff

My hope is that in Alberta’s new version of what creates safety at our workplaces actually uses an evidence-based approach rather than having yet another group of well-meaning people just guessing. The health and safety of our fellow workers hang in the balance.

Alan D. Quilley is the president of Safety Results Ltd., an OHS consulting company in Sherwood Park, Alta. You may contact him at [email protected]