From health to safety

With a masters degree in industrial hygiene, Denise Soucy has spent a lot of time working on the “health” side of occupational health and safety — preventing hearing loss, cancer, occupational disease — but now she is transitioning to being an expert on the safety side as well. Two years ago, she became the executive director of the Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail, secteur affaires municipals (APSAM) in Montreal (the safety association for the municipal sector in Quebec). Previously, she was in charge of regional health programs for Montreal.

“I had worked all around the playground, so to speak, and I was looking for what else I could do to discover other facets of health and safety, and the best way for me was associations,” she says. “I love it. I really love it.”

APSAM has five customer groups: blue collar, white collar, police officers, firefighters and public transportation workers. Its members are 2,000 municipal organizations with 93,000 employees.

Quebec is made up of 11 health and safety associations that cover different sectors funded by the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST), Quebec’s workers’ compensation board.

Prevention is something Soucy is very passionate about, and this is a cornerstone of APSAM.

“If you are in charge of a municipality, sometimes you end up with the mandate of health and safety. It’s not your background, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know by which end you’re going to take it and we can really help them get organized.”

APSAM is addressing the safe driving of fire trucks in its new “No More Excuses” campaign. Different tools have been developed to increase awareness, including video clips and posters. The campaign has two specific topics: reversing maneuvers and wearing seat belts.

When it comes to reversing, firefighters are being encouraged to select someone as a guide who can stand at the back of the truck and help the driver reverse it into place. A video on APSAM’s website shows the different steps for doing this safely and the signals that should be used during the maneuver.

In 2013, one in four (18 per cent) collisions involving fire trucks in Quebec were due to difficulty backing up.

Educating firefighters on the importance of wearing a seat belt when responding to an incident is the second priority.

“Firefighters often don’t wear their seat belts,” says Soucy. “There have been accidents and the group wanted us to do something about it.”

For example, in an awareness video on APSAM’s website, Julie tells the story of her husband, Serge, who was a firefighter. He died in a crash when responding to a call and he was not wearing his seat belt. He left behind his wife and three children.

Seat belts are crucial in fire trucks due to the speed at which they travel. When a vehicle is driving 50 kilometres per hour and hits an obstacle, the impact of a person or object is multiplied by 20. So a person who weighs 70 kilograms becomes a projectile of 1,400 kilograms. The impact is the same as a four-story drop. In Quebec, there are about 15 collisions involving fire trucks per week.

Workplace violence is another key theme for APSAM. It has just released an awareness sheet to prevent violence when interacting with customers.

“Inspectors in municipalities are particularly at risk when they go to see citizens to tell them he built his pool on the boundary and he has to remove it, things like that,” says Soucy. “When they have to have people follow regulations some people get really angry. (Inspectors) get death threats on the phone and sometimes people have firearms for hunting and they tell them ‘Get out of here or I’ll shoot you.’ It happens.”

Ticket agents in cities and municipalities regularly deal with aggressive clients, as do bus drivers who sometimes are spit on by the public. The first step in protecting workers from workplace violence is to get recognition of this issue from high-level executives, says Soucy. Then, policies need to be written and implemented and employees trained.

“And followup when there is something happening. Have a plan of action. How do you support your employees?” she says.

Ergonomics are another priority for APSAM. It recently took on a big project at libraries to help them prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among circulation desk workers. Before libraries are being built or when they are being renovated, APSAM is encouraging builders to look at how the counters are designed to ensure proper ergonomics.

“We want to help them prevent spending money afterwards because they didn’t think about what they had to do to think of safety at the same time as production,” says Soucy.

Ergonomics are a concern for bus drivers as well and APSAM has a joint committee in place that works on constantly improving bus drivers’ work stations, including ergonomic seats and the working space around the seat.

Construction is another key area for the association. The association works a lot on road repair safety and educating workers on how to prevent roadside accidents, dig safely and signal properly in their vehicles.

APSAM provides various services to its members, including consulting and training. Twenty-one different training courses are available, such as setting up a lockout program, health and safety in snow removal, confined space and road works signalling. APSAM offers these courses in the members’ workplaces and tries to reach as many employees as possible.

“Even a small municipality that would probably have two blue-collar workers to train and is 600 kilometres from Montreal, we will go there and find other municipalities to form a group and we will send a trainer and give the training,” says Soucy. “It’s a lot of work here but we are very proud because it gives accessibility to the workers.”

APSAM also offers train-the-trainer courses which helps to facilitate “the taking charge of prevention,” says Soucy.

The association is highly involved in research and has 22 projects on the go with the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en Sécurité du travail (IRSST) in Montreal.

“This helps us always be up to date and have good information,” says Soucy. “The subjects covered are very diversified; it could be ergonomics, airborne contaminants, biological contaminants or issues facing police.”

Going forward, one of Soucy’s goals as executive director is to measure the progress of the association’s members.

“I really want to measure that they really take charge. Now they can do it, they’re good; they won’t have any more accidents… And that’s not easy to measure. It’s a long-term goal.”

After more than 28 years in the health space, Soucy is starting to make her mark in safety and enjoys the satisfaction the industry brings.

“With health, it’s really, really, really long before you can see results from your actions. How many people won’t be deaf because you did something about noise reduction? Or how many cancers will you prevent?” she says. “With safety, you can see if you work with a municipality and do excavation safety, you can really observe that they do it. You get your reward more easily.”

Photo: Denise Soucy, executive director of the Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail, secteur affaires municipals (APSAM).

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of COS.