Pandemic has been tough but has allowed organizations to grow, says chemical company safety officer
For Erika Santarossa-Harris, safety is as important at home as it is at work.
She has two young children, who she constantly discusses safety with, and coaches them in how to assess risk in their daily activities.
"I feel I did a great job grooming little health and safety representatives, while working from home together over the last two years," she says. "They do a fantastic job impersonating me.”
Santarossa-Harris went to the University of Windsor where she did her Bachelor and Master’s in Human Kinetics.
She made the decision relatively early on in her career that she wanted to pursue ergonomics, and gained experience as an ergonomic co-op student in nuclear power, mining and automotive manufacturing – in which she was always a part of the organization’s health and safety department.
“Therein those positions, I had a lot of opportunities to partake in the different programs that they offered in [OHS],” says Santarossa-Harris. “And that’s where I really got my first feel for occupational health and safety within an organization.”
She became very involved in training and built up experience in key OHS areas such as PPE requirements, SDS revisions and industrial hygiene.
While Santarossa-Harris enjoyed her taste of occupational safety, she was hesitant to fully pursue it: “Back then, occupational health and safety was very much more authoritative and reactive, I wouldn’t say it was as collaborative and proactive as it is now, so I had some reservations about getting involved strictly in occupational health and safety.”
After university, Santarossa-Harris worked for Fiat Chrysler Automotive as an ergonomist until eventually, a position opened up as a health and safety specialist.
“That position was fundamental in my transition to an occupational health and safety role," she says. "I was only in that role for about two and half years, but it gave me a lot of experience – especially working with the frontline employees and understanding their concerns.”
Santarossa-Harris started at BASF, a multinational chemical company and one of the largest chemical producesr in the world, in 2016: “I hope that I retire from BASF. It’s an amazing company. During my first week, going through new employee orientation and onboarding, it was so evident that they had a very different safety culture than anything I had ever experienced before.”
Since starting at BASF, her role has evolved on a number of occasions. Santarossa-Harris is now EHS and Responsible Care Specialist, within BASF Canada’s Global Business Services organization. She has had the opportunity to lead many EHS projects and programs, and as a result was highlighted in 2020 as Canada’s Safest Employer’s Rising Star of the Year. One of her main projects right now is enhancing the organization’s psychological health and safety management systems.
“It goes hand in hand with not only the improvements we’re trying to make from a health and safety standpoint, but also our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives which I think tie in really well together.
If people don’t feel comfortable being themselves, and feel like they’re not accepted or included the way they are, how can we expect them to be focused on their task at hand?” Says Santarossa-Harris.
“My favourite part about my current role is really that I get to support all of our different business units, it’s very diverse. I am constantly learning something new.
I enjoy being challenged to learn something new, and also just working with all of our frontline employees,” she says.
Santarossa-Harris explains that COVID has been a big challenge.
“We had pandemic plans in place prior to COVID being announced in Canada as a pandemic,” she says.
Despite this, like many companies, there was still a lot to do.
During the pandemic, the organization launched its Crisis Incident Support Team (CIST) which included safety, human resources, legal and medical to assist all of its business units around Canada:
“I think we really rose to the challenge, we had so many incredible initiatives come out of the pandemic. Without the pandemic, I don’t think that we would be at the point we are now with a lot of different things. From an organization perspective, it’s had an impact on many different aspects of our organization.”
The pandemic allowed Santarossa-Harris to go back to her ergonomics roots due to the number of employees working from home, “we found the need to really enhance our office ergonomics program. We embraced digitalization, to create a simplified method for our employees to complete self assessments, and trigger notification to their respective EHS Specialist if a predefined risk threshold was triggered.”
At work, she is responsible for the organization’s training matrix, and is very frequently training.
She is also working on sustaining their Exposure Reduction Process, which is a behaviour-based safety program focused on cultural factors that contribute to safety performance.
“The focus is on changing the mindset that a safe day is more than a day with no injuries or incidents. Rather, it’s controlling and managing exposures to self and others, and creating a culture that proactively approaches and addresses workplace hazards and eliminates at-risk behaviours.
As Responsible Care Coordinator, Santarossa-Harris also does a lot of community outreach.
In addition, she is a member of the Women in BASF group. She has been collaborating with a local organization in Windsor, Women’s Enterprise Skills Training (WEST), which allows her to meet newcomer immigrants to Canada every three months, share her career journey with them and conduct WHMIS & Safety Rights and Responsibilities training with them.
“This has been a very inspirational experience for me, and I have also learnt a lot about health and safety programs from around the world through this experience.
I also participate in a subcommittee through the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), with other health and safety representatives from member companies to share incidents, near misses, best practices, etc. so that as an industry we can all improve.”