Then and now: The evolution of construction safety

How safety in the industry has changed over the decades

Sean Scott, current chair of the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations, speaks with COS senior journalist, Shane Mercer, about safety in the industry and how it has changed over the past several decades. The episode is the first part of a Canadian Occupational Safety series to mark 60 years of publication.

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Shane: Hello and welcome to this latest edition of COS TV. I'm Shane Mercer, senior journalist of Canadian Occupational Safety. I'm excited to welcome Sean Scott, executive director of the Construction Safety Association of Manitoba and the current chair of the Canadian Federation of Construction Associations. Welcome, Sean.

Scott: Thanks, Shane. Good to see you.

Shane: Good to see you as well. So let me start off by asking you, how would you describe the current state of safety in the construction industry?

Scott: Okay. So typical Shane, thank you very much. That's quite the loaded question. So we'll try to keep it a little bit brief. But I guess in a in a word, I would say that it's evolving. So safety and health here in the construction industry over the past couple of decades has significantly changed. And what I mean by that is the mindset is safety is no longer just an add on. It's actually ingrained into production, quality and efficiency. It's equitable, equitable management. So safety is something that there's a constant eye towards prevention of incidents first and foremost. And the industry itself is seeing multiple improvements in all types of areas, from training to PPE to tools and equipment that manufacturers actually have the built or ingrained safety components within those tools and equipment. So there's a lot of good things, and the drastic improvement over a couple of decades has really seen also a steady decline in the number of incidents that actually occur. So all of this and where I'm going is I was very fortunate. I started with the Construction Safety Association in 1999, so I have seen a couple of decades of growth in participation of safety and health and also with the construction associations themselves. And that's kind of just slightly going to talk a little bit about that, if that's okay. In terms of the development of construction safety associations, all jurisdictions here in Canada do have a construction safety association and the majority of us and Manitoba is no different. We were established to assist contractors in meeting their legislative responsibilities and assisting with accident prevention. And from my perspective, our objectives since 1989, they have not changed. It is to provide that accident prevention and provide them with changes to legislation that will affect them. And then we come up with the information, resources, tools and training to assist them in meeting their legislative responsibilities. The best thing for a company to do is to implement a comprehensive safety health management system. And in Canada there is a national accreditation program called Core Certificate of Recognition that verifies the company has implemented an effective safety management system that meets those national standards as established by the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Association. So this program itself has been in place for the last 20 years, and it has proven itself to be a very, very effective means to assist those contractors. So in the late eighties, there's a lot of incidents and accidents happening and the contractor said we need help. That's why these associations were created. So in the late eighties or early nineties, up until the start of the 2000, all jurisdictions actually created a construction safety association. So from my perspective now from the start, when I started in 1999 to now, it's a drastic and dramatic change in the evolution of safety in the construction industry. When we look across jurisdictions, all jurisdictions basically have legislation now that ingrain safety and health into requirements. It's a legal obligation and a condition of employment in all Canadian jurisdictions. So just as yourself or any other worker, your employer has to ensure the safety and health and welfare of you and anybody else involved in your activities while you're being paid or while you're an employee. And on the flip side, you also have for fundamental rights. You have the right to know the right to participate in your own health and safety. And ultimately, if you feel that your safety, health and welfare is somehow compromised, that you also have the right to refuse. And the fourth right is that an employer cannot discriminate you against you for exercising any of these rights. So it's a legislative component. You have all these resources here that are assisting to try to prevent incidents from actually happening. And there's tons of things that have actually happened in the last couple of decades. So when I say the evolution of safety, we're just evolving and we're continuously evolving continuous improvement. So the state of the construction industry, obviously construction in the early eighties nineties was deemed to be a very dangerous occupation. A lot of safety association put in place as resources to assist contractors. And now what we see is the construction industry is a very, very effective industry in terms of ensuring production, quality, efficiency and safety of individuals. So long story short, but in terms of the state, that's just there's again, 20 years of history and experience in terms of starting where it was to where we actually are right now. It's actually very impressive and I'm proud to work in the construction industry.

Shane: You know, part of evolving is involves confronting challenges. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges that the industry is going to be confronting in this year, 2023?

Scott: Yeah, well, from a from an incident or injury point of view. Falls continue to be the number one concern. So all across the board in Canada in construction falls continue to be the number one cause of severe injuries and all employers just a generic kind of background. All employers typically have a workers compensation board, a workplace safety and insurance board in Ontario. And all employers typically need to participate in there. And how you actually participate with that is that you actually pay an assessment rate based on the risk that industry that you're actually in and 80% of your costs for what an employer pays for their worker's compensation is all based on severe injuries. So the severe injuries in construction, the biggest concern continue to be false. When you look at time loss incidents, it would be the musculoskeletal injuries in terms of when you're looking at the, if you have maybe a slip or a trip, you have a little tweak or your muscle or your back, something is actually part of your musculoskeletal system. So those are continue to be the highest number for the time loss when we're looking for other areas in the construction industry that are concern skilled labor and the shortage of skilled labor is an active concern right now and will continue to be an active concern moving forward. Along with that and when you have new or vulnerable or new workers that are actually coming into the industry, it just when you're looking at risk itself, it's the what's the the severity or the outcome. How many precautions do you have to take to try to balance that out? And when you have new people that are unaware of potentially the incidents or the hazards that occur or could occur, it's a challenge. And when you get into simplified safety, simplified safety, generally, it's the ability to identify, communicate and control hazards. That's safety. In a nutshell, if you want to sound like a good safety professional, it's your ability to identify, communicate and control hazards. So of those three, you can have great processes. And again, the construction industry has evolved to be able to identify and have practices, part of that safety and health management system to identify hazards. That's number one. And to control those hazards which once a hazard is identified, going back to legislation, your employer or your supervisor must put in place something to actually try to control those hazards. However, if you are not able to communicate that, you have a huge challenge. And I think that will continue to be a bit of a challenge. The ability for people to communicate, here's the hazard, here's what you actually need to do. How do you actually communicate that? If you have new workers coming into play, they may not understand the language. Do you know what PPE actually means? Safety professionals seem to like to use a lot of acronyms, so it's to ensure not to assume individuals know what you're talking about, to be very clear in your communication so they can actually understand. And if we're talking that we have a lot of new people coming into Canada where English may or may not be their first language, it might be a challenge. So again, these may bring in some kind of barriers in place, so skilled laborers to have them and then the potential higher risk that they might pose as new workers to the construction industry is a concern. And so I don't know if you want to go into any more depth than that. The other area that I find is just part of what the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations and a lot of companies, they're no longer just working in their own backyard. They work in different areas, different locales or different jurisdictions. And once you start crossing into different municipalities or different provinces or territories, consistency becomes an issue. And consistency not just in terms of legislative requirements, but consistency in what is allowed in terms of training. If you have working at heights is a great example. In Ontario, you have legislation that specifies working at heights is a mandatory requirement for training by an accredited provider and it must be done. If you take working in heights in Ontario, does that count in Manitoba? Is the fall the same in Ontario versus Manitoba? The legislation here doesn't specify that course, but it specifies that your individuals must be competent. So amongst the Federation, one of the goals of the Federation, I'll just talk briefly about the Canadian Federation is they work as an umbrella group with the people, with the shared interest in collaboration and harmonization and ultimately trying to create consistency in those standards so that clients that work from Manitoba to Ontario, they don't have to redo all these different things because in generality it's the model principle 80/20 rule, 80% of it's going to be the same all the way across Canada, 20%. Be very specific to the legislation, so long and short. Again, one of the challenges in 2023 for particularly the contractors that are moving around or looking for work doing things in different places is to ensure that there is a consistency in what they've been made aware of. What's their safety management system? Is it going to be the same in Ontario versus Manitoba versus Newfoundland versus B.C.? What happens? So again, sorry, I seem to chat a lot or talk a lot, Shane. I hope I answered your question somewhere along those lines.

Shane: Well, no, you gave me several answers in that response there. But I wanted to touch on sort of two sort of main issues going on there. So you brought up the skilled labor shortage. And in addition to that, you kind of brought up the migration of workers and workers sort of moving across the country as two major challenges ahead for for 2023. What would your advice be to health and safety professionals working in the construction industry on how to tackle those specific challenges?

Scott: Well. Answering that question in a broader kind of. Broader kind of way is, number one, provide exceptional quality or exceptional customer service, quality and value for whoever your clients are, being your boss, be it your customers if you're a consultant or if you're working for your company. Ensure that what you provide is actually relevant and practical first and foremost. And again, that just goes back to the basis of that simplified safety, identify, communicate and control. And you have to have the ability to communicate that and ensure that what you're communicating is relevant and practical to the people that you're dealing with. So again, just generalizing, going back to what can people do? One of the things that I only touched on it briefly, but it's something that is very important to talk about is the safety health management system. Part of that evolution of safety includes and construction was on the forefront of this and the core program has been in place since 2000. So 2000 is a formal memorandum of understanding that identifies the elements, everything that needs to be put in place. And there's also a proper audit and now a harmonized audit instrument to utilize across Canada to validate and verify that you have an occupational safety and health system that meets the national standards of core. So again, the objectives of core right industry employers with effective tools to ensure they develop, implement and assess and promote continual improvement and to prevent incidents from actually happening. So the core program itself has proven to be very effective and from the core program, majority of jurisdictions across Canada also have graded WCB prevention rebate program, and if your course certified, you're automatically provided a ten or 15% reduction in what your WCB rates are, because they know that if you're a course certified company, you are going to have less severe  injuries and you're going to cost the WCB less. So again, if there's anything you can do, be consistent. Don't cut corners or never compromise for the sake of expediency safety in somebody's life. You cannot replace an individual's life. You can always replace products and materials and be very consistent with your message. And the best thing, the simplest thing to do is to ensure that you know how to actually identify, communicate, control and that safety management system. There's a great template to help you to ensure all of these aspects and your legislative requirements are met, and that is the core accreditation program. So lots of stuff there. Anything else you want to delve into?

Shane: I think we've covered a lot of ground here, Sean, so I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up here?

Scott: How long do you have? I love talking safety. Now, one of the things that in terms of the world kind of revolves around me. Right. The world also revolves around every single person that's in this world. So Shane's world, it's all about you and people you interact with, people you influence. When you talk about safety and health professionals, one thing that is very important is to make a decision. Once you make that decision, that actually moves you in a path forward. And one of the things that I talk about in terms of behaviors, it all starts from your attitude. Your behavior is a function of what your decisions are. And then you also have a great responsibility. And when you break that word down, it's your ability to respond, response ability, your ability to respond to any situation. So prepare yourself, make sure that whatever situation you're going in, that you are competent in dealing with it. And as a safety professional, if you're not competent, make sure you advise people of that and don't try to be asked. Safety and health is something that's very, very integral to my world, my way of life. And I also have a young family and I want to ensure that I go home safely at the end of the day, just like any person that we interact with, we want to make sure they go home safely at the end of the day to their their family or their loved ones or whoever that may be. So safety and health is something that's, it's critical. It is a condition of employment. And there's, again, all the moral, legal, financial kind of stuff aside, when you go down to the personal level of it, make sure that your responsibility actually helps you get home safely and helps those around you get home safely. So. That's all I wanted to add. If you have any other questions, you know, our website is There's tons of information links to all of the members of the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Association. Tons of great links to other quality safety organizations that are across Canada. And if you want to get ahold of me personally, the email is [email protected] And again, I love talking safety, and I'd be more than happy to share any information that we have with you or any of your listeners.

Shane: Important messages there, Sean. Great advice. Great takeaways. So again, that's Sean Scott. He's at You can reach him by email, as you mentioned, [email protected] Thanks so much, Sean.

Scott: Thank you, Shane. Have a great day. Take care.

Shane: You too. And stay up to date on the latest news and trends and safety by checking in on Canadian Occupational Safety at I'm Shane Mercer.