2013 Safety Leader of the Year: David Johnston

Johnston has made a lasting impact on Toronto Hydro in just 4 years

2013 Safety Leader of the Year: David Johnston
When David Johnston joins a new company, he transforms it into a first-class safety organization. He has been successful at revamping the safety culture at companies in metal refining, food processing, automobile manufacturing, aerospace and utilities, according to Ray Mullin, specialist, fall and respiratory, at Honeywell in Mississauga, Ont., who has worked closely with Johnston for more than 30 years. 

“David is really good at implementing safety programs and improving safety records,” he says. “Because he has worked in so many different types of industries, I don’t believe there is anyone in the business that has the kind of know-how that he does.” 

Johnston, director of environmental, health and safety at Toronto Hydro, is the winner of the 2013 Safety Leader of the Year award, presented by Canadian Occupational Safety and sponsored by Honeywell. 

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: David Johnston, 2013 Safety Leader of the Year

Johnston’s vast experience has served Toronto Hydro well, according to Ave Lethbridge, chief human resources and safety officer. 

“He tells stories that are unfortunate stories, but fortunate for us because we can learn from his experience and
exposure to many different situations, so we benefit from his experience.”

Since Johnston joined Toronto Hydro in 2009, the utility company achieved a 66 per cent reduction in injuries. It has also recently achieved 3.5 million hours without a lost-time injury. 

“The span of time between injuries is so critical to us because it means we are getting better all the time,” says Lethbridge. “It’s a testament to a great safety system and great leadership.”

Achieving certification

In July 2011, Johnston started developing and implementing a health, safety and environmental management system at Toronto Hydro, which has 1,530 employees. The company achieved OHSAS 18001 and ISO 14001 certification in February 2013.

“(It was) a rigorous process of audits and action plans, and integration and engagement right around the organization,” says Lethbridge. “Achieving that goal is one of David’s most important milestones and a very important milestone to Toronto Hydro.”

Johnston and his team worked hard to develop the system with input from key stakeholders across the organization — which was greatly appreciated, according to Chuck Perry, supervisor, facilities and asset management at Toronto Hydro.

“They didn’t write this procedure
in a vacuum; they went out to the
field, the shop floor, the engineering offices, so they could gather enough information to truly make these
procedures effective.”

As a front-line supervisor, Perry welcomes the new standard as it helps him monitor and plan his daily activities, and the feedback cycle helps his team continually improve. 

Through striving for the ISO certification, Toronto Hydro saw a huge cultural shift take place across the organization. This was due in part to Johnston’s collaboration with his peers to ensure everyone was on-side, says Lethbridge.

“When you’re putting a system in place across the organization, it’s critical to have everyone join you in that initiative and its success is dependent on everyone moving that system forward,” she says. 

Training revamped

Johnston worked closely with the training and development team to develop a solid risk-based training program at Toronto Hydro. 

“Training was specifically important (in achieving certification). A lot of testing, a lot of baseline training, a lot of reprogramming of the old training, a lot of procedures had to be written and a lot of employees had to be engaged,” says Lethbridge.

For example, one of the highest risks the company faces is motor vehicle incidents, as it operates a fleet of more than 600 trucks.  The company bought a driving simulator to complement its classroom training, and all employees who drive a company vehicle are required to complete the training, says Johnston.

Driver licence abstracts are reviewed regularly and employees with a poor driving record who drive commercial vehicles undergo a two-day in-cab assessment by a third-party professional. This helps with further coaching purposes and to aid in determining if the employee should be allowed to continue to drive the vehicles, says Johnston. 

“It’s not a matter of talking, it’s a matter of actions to support our talk and I think that was the key thing to establish credibility,” says Johnston. “We got very serious about how we track and train people.”

A focus on safety is palpable at all levels of the organization. William Graham, a certified power line person, is an apprentice at Toronto Hydro and says safety is a top priority at the company. 

“We regularly do safety meetings every month. We talk about everything that’s come up while we’re on the job site, go over it, see how we can come up with ways to better ourselves,” he says. “Also, at the beginning of every job, we do a tailboard discussing all the hazards.”

Having a strong safety culture is especially important at a utility company because a lot of employees work without direct supervision. They may have a crew leader, but their supervisor is responsible for up to five different crews.

“These are self-managed teams and we very much rely on their knowledge of hazards and how to work safely, and we need to make sure that knowledge is kept up to date to ensure they are aware of all these hazards so they do not get injured,” says Johnston. 

More investigations

Before Johnston came on board, very few incidents were being investigated at Toronto Hydro. In 2010, only 14 internal investigations were completed. In 2012, that number rose to 100. And the average time to close
an investigation has gone from more than 60 days to less than 15, with a goal of 24 hours. 

“When things go wrong on the work site, we have to bring them forward to management right away,” says Graham. “Their biggest thing is they want to hear about it; not so much to discipline us but to find a corrective action so it doesn’t happen again.”

Now, the company investigates every near miss, and incidents and near misses are being reported more and more by employees.

“There’s two things going on here: One is employees know we take these things seriously… and that in turn has encouraged employees to start reporting these near misses which perhaps they never would have reported in the past, because they thought nothing would have been done,” says Johnston. 

Management accountability

It’s important all managers at Toronto Hydro stay updated on safety issues and concerns within the company. To address this, managers receive a weekly dashboard that explains the “status of safety” throughout the organization, says Johnston.

When it comes to measuring performance, all managers and crew leaders are assigned a key performance indicator (KPI) for safety. And safety is the most highly weighted KPI for the senior management team. 

Leaders are charged with encouraging their employees to come to them with any safety issue that may arise — no matter how big or small. 

“Being an apprentice, my opinion matters, which was surprising to me when I came here. They actually care what I have to say and they listen to what I have to say and take it into consideration,” says Graham. 

One message Johnston wants to relay to other safety professionals and managers is that safety is not complicated. While there is no silver bullet to fix safety problems, the solutions do not need to be complicated, he says. 

“The challenge with making the workplace safe is actually having the diligence and making the effort to make those things happen and it really is about sweating the small things and being very granular in your approach and being very picky about those things,” says Johnston. 

Every day, the hard working employees of Toronto Hydro motivate Johnston. Whether he’s conducting site inspections or just walking by, the employees he sees working together are inspiring, he says.

“When I see them working really hard, I always think to myself, ‘If they’re working hard to make sure our customers are satisfied and have reliable electricity, I need to work just as hard to make sure they stay safe.’”

This comes full circle because employees at Toronto Hydro are motivated and inspired by Johnston. 

“He always forces me to ask the next question: ‘Why?’ ‘Can we get better?’ He is relentless in his pursuit to achieve better and that really inspires me as a front-line supervisor to adopt that behaviour,” says Perry. “He’s approachable, you can ask him a question and he’s always willing to offer some expertise and advice.”

Johnston is a real role model to his subordinates, his peer group and the operational leaders in the organization, says Lethbridge.

“He role models what he means about safety. He really believes that zero is possible — when he believes, we believe.”