Trends in health and safety for 2016

Dave Rebbitt
Looking ahead to 2016 we will see a year of interesting challenges for those in the safety profession. With the economy unstable, or in recession, many outcomes remain uncertain.

Global Harmonized System: The Global Harmonized System is still arriving. According to the Health Canada website federal workplaces (airports, container terminals, federal government installations and other ports of entry) must be in compliance by the December 2018.

New regulations will come into effect in May of 2017 and the phased implementation will start with manufacturers and importers who will become compliant with the new regulation by May of 2017. Suppliers and distributers will have until November of 2018.

Of course this now leaves the provinces with the responsibility of amending their own legislation to align with the new federal Hazardous Products Act and Hazardous Products Regulations (replacing the Controlled Products Regulations). When all that will happen is a subject for 2017 predictions.

Demonstrating value in the profession will be a challenge: With an economy that is struggling, companies always turn to the one cost they can most easily control — labour. Specifically overhead — those position that do not generate revenue directly. Already we see companies choosing not to fill positions and as we move forward, those in overhead positions, such as safety professionals, will be under more pressure to demonstrate value.

This is problematic, particularly for the adherents to the cult of zero. If we consistently promise zero and zero actually happens, then how do we show value? Besides, zero takes a lot of resources in times of belt tightening. Of course, this all goes back to the argument of measuring the right things. Measuring your success on an outcome that you can only influence is a pretty dangerous line to walk.

Since we in safety do not produce anything tangible, showing value in the activities we do to facilitate safety will continue to be a challenge. The year ahead certainly seems that it will be marked by smaller safety teams and higher expectations. Promising to do more of the same probably will not be seen as value-added in 2016.

Those in management positions will likely see a narrowing of the gap between what they think the safety department should be doing and what the company actually expects them to do. I find that the 80-20 rule applies where safety personnel spend 80 per cent of their time doing things the company wants them to do and only 20 per cent of their time being proactive in analyzing performance and actively reducing risk in the workplace.

Demand for safety people will remain strong: The safety occupation will continue to grow. However, employers will be much choosier in terms of who they hire. One group will value experience more than anything else and the other education. The preference in most cases will be post-secondary education and experience. It is one way that employers will be able to distinguish amongst the hundreds of resumes they receive for every safety position they have.

Once an advocate for experience (which I have bags of), I have switched sides and see real value in education (now that I have both). Too many times we in safety know what to do because that is what has always been done. We are a profession driven strongly by the ‘Why’ of things. We certainly ought to understand why we do the things we do instead of questioning why the latest awareness campaign did not work very well.

Fatalities will be static: Although the number of workplace fatalities continues to be upward (in the United States, workplace deaths rose slightly last year) as the economy remains sluggish, there will be less new workers entering the workplace. Additionally, there will be less turnover as workers try to hold on to the job they have instead of looking for the next one. This means more specific experience in the workplace and that — coupled with fewer new workers — will lead to fewer fatalities. This is historically what has happened in recent times (think 2008-09) when economic activity has declined.

Deaths due to occupational disease fatalities will continue to rise until their expected peak in another decade or so.

We will see more rules and “zero tolerance”: Most large companies in North America have become fixated on rules like an angry parent trying to have their child behave. By making clear rules and ratcheting up the penalties for disobedience, they strive to have a perfect workplace free from “unsafe acts or behaviours.” Such workplaces have “zero tolerance” for “unsafe acts” in the workplace. The removal of the discretion normally reserved for managers in automatically applying penalties is growing in popularity. So, failing to obey a simple rule can resulting in an automatic termination of employment.

Employers are completely within their rights to do this, provided they ensure appropriate communication and consultation with the union (where applicable). Of course, the same companies still want employees to report any errors they may make, or observe, in a consequence-free environment.

While such an approach may make sense on the surface, it will destroy the very engagement these companies seek with their employees. That is a trend of interest that bears watching.

The "silver bullet" is slightly tarnished: There will never be any shortage of those promising quick results and they are not hard to find. One of the biggest is DuPont, but things changed this year. DuPont’s chemical operations in the United States were placed on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). I wrote about this earlier in the year in a blog called “The Mighty Have Fallen.” 

Sustainable Solutions is the division of DuPont that sells DuPont’s safety processes and expertise around the world. It is a quick and expensive fix and certainly is not backed up by DuPont’s own results. The business is worth a whopping US$3.9 billion annually, so there are a lot of people buying. Perhaps, in 2016, that particular silver bullet has fallen out of the holster.

Your ethics are likely to be challenged: As in all times of economic slowdown, ethical considerations have been shown to take a back seat to “other considerations,” as the business world likes to put it. When times are not great, spending money on necessary things becomes a luxury that some companies may not be able to bear. Ethical and moral dilemmas wait in many places in such times.

A case to watch: In 2015, the Metron case continued to unfold in the Ontario courts. At Christmas time in 2009 a swing stage collapsed and killed most of the workers on it. This past October, the project manager was found guilty of four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January 2016. The company was convicted of several charges and the lone survivor has sued the Ontario Ministry of Labour because he felt they failed to enforce safety requirements. This one certainly bears watching.

The last holdout to regulate farms: Alberta is currently working towards regulating farms. It is the last holdout, the only province not to regulate farms since Ontario moved forward with legislation in 2006. There are some strong feelings on this move. Agriculture is consistently the most dangerous industry in terms of fatality rates in almost every industrialized county.

Farming has, in some ways, become much more industrial in scale and approach.

It will be interesting to see how Alberta balances the family farm with a few casual employees against commercial farming and ranching operations. Striking the right balance will take time and a lot of consultation. It will also mean some additional costs for farming and ranching operations; therefore, perhaps the government will favour a phased approach with a longer time horizon.

As I peer towards 2016, I see that we continue to live in challenging times. Although safety is an important function, many companies will see it as something akin to insurance that can be cut over the short term with little effect. Time will tell if they are right.