Arm wrestler takes on workplace safety challenge

‘World Arm Wrestling Champion’ is not a title you commonly see among the list of credentials of a typical safety manager. Yet his earlier arm wrestling feats are a significant part of Darrell Belyk’s approach to health and safety management.
Belyk is the corporate safety manager at Tri-Venture Group, a reclamation, decommissioning and metal recycling firm based in Airdrie, Alberta. As the first person to hold the title in the company, Belyk has taken on the challenge of building an entirely new safety program for the Tri-Venture Group, the soul of which is establishing safety culture across the organization.

To succeed in his role, communication with employees is key, says Belyk, and that is where his arm wrestling experience comes in handy.

The confidence gained from years of competing, both locally and internationally, afforded Belyk the ability to get his message across whenever he needs to.

He first recognized this ability when, after winning a world championship in Tokyo in 1999, he was asked by some of the Rotary Clubs in Calgary to speak at some of their meetings.

“People were actually listening to me and they were taking what I said (and regarding me) as being an inspirational speaker,” says Belyk, who has since been using this special ability in his chosen career as a safety professional.

Getting started
The corporate safety manager post at Tri-Venture is a new role created about a year ago by its CEO Rob Barnett, who recruited Belyk. Belyk had been in the safety field for over a decade. “They did have a safety program here…but by the looks of it, it hasn’t been updated for about eight years,” Belyk says.

The Tri-Venture Group’s business subsidiaries comprise of two metal recycling companies, an asbestos abatement firm, two demolition/decommissioning companies and an oil field valve repair company. The businesses fall under two professional safety associations in Alberta: the Manufacturers’ Health and Safety Association and the Alberta Construction Safety Association.

Belyk needed to create a corporate safety program that encompasses all six of Tri-Venture’s subsidiary firms. He then had to develop customized programs that fit the requirements and conditions of each of the business units and the appropriate professional safety association they fall under, for safety audit purposes.  

Getting the safety programs across all of Tri-Venture Group’s companies audited and certified by the Alberta government was one of Belyk’s initial goals. But while it’s no small feat to accomplish, a successful audit is “not the end-all and be-all” of the company’s safety program, he says.

“I’m starting to work with all the companies in establishing safety behaviours, and to (inform them about their) accountabilities from upper management to the business unit managers and frontline supervisors,” Belyk says.

Because Tri-Venture never really had someone solely dedicated to looking after the safety of employees, one of the biggest tasks for Belyk is establishing a safety culture throughout the company.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “You have to build up the culture, as well as get people to look out for other people.”

Training is an important component of achieving that safety culture across the organization, says Belyk. “I’ve seen in the past that if you train people, people know what is going to happen or how to do a job, so that something will just click in them and say, ‘Hey, there’s a hazard here to look out for!’ When that starts to happen, then accidents won’t be as frequent or as severe.”

Lifelong disability
In communicating safety with the employees Belyk does not mind, and even prefers, to get a little personal. “I try to get to know each worker on a personal level, to know where they are coming from. Once I find some of their interests on other things then I try to incorporate safety into it.”

Belyk’s safety message embodies his personal experience: a lifelong disability as a result of a stroke he suffered when he was four years old.

The stroke left his right arm and right foot partially paralyzed, forcing Belyk who was born right-handed, to learn to make strong use of his left arm. He also learned a few years ago, with the aid of a brain scan, that his childhood stroke had left a part of his brain virtually inactive.

Because the stroke happened at a very young age, Belyk admits he does not remember much about that episode of his life. What he did remember was how he initially tried to conceal his disability.

“Everyone has a disability…some might be unseen, but mine is physical so it’s nothing that I can hide, which I tried to do when I was younger and I didn’t do that very well. So what I did was I looked at it another way and I’m telling the story of it now,” he says.

Belyk did not only learn to make use of his left hand and arm to substitute for the right, but he learned to make that part of his body stronger, which later allowed him to compete in arm wrestling tournaments.

“I didn’t have a choice at having a lifelong disability, where other people do. I’m just here to help you prevent that, to help you recognize hazards so you don’t have to (go through) the hospital stays and the bills piling up on you, like my family did when I was going through it,” explains Belyk.

By elimination
Belyk admits that safety was not a profession he had initially chosen for himself. “By elimination, I was asked to be the safety guy and I took it on.”

As the “safety guy” at a Calgary metal recycling company he was working for at the time, Belyk became interested in the field and took up several safety courses to widen his knowledge around occupational safety.

Ten years, four companies and several safety certifications later, Belyk finds himself working at an organization he feels comfortable in, and in a profession he feels at home with.

“When I get a positive stroke every so often from say, a unit manager or the CEO Rob Barnett, then you know it keeps me going, and actually I can keep going quite well because of that intrinsic motivation that I have,” he says.

In turn, he always sees to it that employees are constantly commended for safe-work practices to encourage and assure them.

Visibility is also key, he says. “It helps when you’re out in the yard. Although I am a senior manager, I like to be out in the field, just to make my presence known and be open enough to answer any questions that should come my way.”

His chosen career path is not without challenges, however. There are the occasional “political” issues that sometimes become an obstacle to his pursuit of a safer workplace.

Belyk narrates his experience working for an educational institution in Calgary. “If you wanted to implement a policy for instance, you have to go through a number of hoops. I’ve never had more than two or three drafts before I have something implemented. And the two years that I was there at that organization, I was still on the same draft.”

Past experience has also taught him to “grow out of things that don’t work out for you.” So although he had always enjoyed working with the people at that organization, he decided it was time to move on.

Belyk always felt at home in the manufacturing industry, and it was where his safety profession began. So when the opportunity came up for him to work in the industry again, through an offer from a furniture manufacturing company, he took it. He worked there for a short period until the opportunity at Tri-Venture opened up for him.

“They say when one door closes, another door opens. I feel now that I have walked into something that I really like and we’re growing in this company right now,” he says. As the company grows so does the safety culture that Belyk is trying to build within Tri-Venture.

While the immediate goal is to get all the Tri-Venture companies audited and awarded a certificate of recognition for safety by the Alberta government, Belyk’s long-term goal is to empower the workers a little bit more when it comes to their safety at work.

“Sometimes it’s hard for management to let go of the reins, to let the employees decide how they are going to do something. But that’s how you build a positive company culture,” says Belyk.

He believes that by engaging the employees and making them feel that they are a big part of the process, safety programs will have a better chance of success.

“Yes, you need a supervisor there to guide them…but as long as you are there to guide them through and you make them feel it’s their decision, they would buy in so you have a better cohesiveness of the entire working force,” Belyk says.