When did you decide you wanted a career in occupational health and safety?
I’m not sure I really decided on a career in Occupational Health & Safety. That choice was really made for me. I became interested in workplace health and safety while I was in the military after witnessing a needless fatality. My career naturally progressed in that direction when I found I enjoyed it and I was good at it.
What was your first occupational health and safety position?
My first safety position was as the safety representative for maintenance workshop where I worked. There was a lot of stuff to absorb and a lot of it was really driven by managing the hazardous wastes generated by the workshop and the other products that were in use as this was when the WHMIS legislation was coming into force.
Tell me about your current job. What are your main areas of responsibility?
My current job is the principle consultant at Rarebit Consulting. Most of the time I work on my own but also partner on various projects. What that really means is that I’m in charge of marketing, accounting, and operations.
I am involved in research projects, instructional design, teaching, and COR audits. I also do small pieces of work for existing clients on areas that vary widely.
What do you love about your job?
I have always done safety consulting internally within companies and I did it when I was between jobs. What I like about my job is the opportunity to learn. What I love is the opportunity to see different businesses and different approaches to health and safety across Western Canada.
My clients include federally regulated companies and provincially regulated companies. They run from very small to very large companies that are very diverse ranging from engineering, aviation, and some traditional oil and gas activities.
I also love teaching. There are many getting into health and safety with no preconceptions who are open to newer ideas and looking to learn a real profession. There are a lot of nuances to safety and anything else to do with people. I love the discussions that often arise around safety dogma, that overturn assumptions in favour of facts.
What are the challenges you experience in your job?
The biggest challenge is helping employers see that safety should be value added, instead of a bureaucratic set of limits, is a rewarding experience.
As a proponent of what I call “intelligent safety” my challenge is to educate employers and business owners so that they can make good choices about where to spend their safety resources and how to accomplish their business goals. Good safety is really good management and leadership.
I work with a lot of small and medium sized companies. They often know little about health and safety and are often preyed upon by unethical or inexperienced persons selling poor products or overstating their expertise. The challenge is to help the company see, by thinking critically, that some of the things they are buying or some of the things that are being done simply do not make sense and are not in service of any legislative compliance, or safety improvement. That is part of what I mean by intelligent safety.
What skills are important for success in the OHS field?
I think technical expertise is a must. Most people here would say interpersonal skills are important and the importance of those can’t really be overstated. Interpersonal skills in communicating with people at different levels of an organization are very important. However, all of that has to be backed up by a strong foundation of knowledge in health and safety.
One of the skills I see that is not mentioned a lot is writing skills. Safety people have to write reports, and procedures. I find that that is a very rare skill set. Technical writing is something that safety professionals should be very good at since incident investigations can be complex. They may not always fit the standard form or the table of checkboxes labeling causes. Writing is also important in articulating a strategic plan for the safety system that aligns with the organization’s strategic plan. Safety people often make their own plans and isolation, forgetting that it is not their safety system but the employers.
Possibly the most of support and skill is the hardest to get, and the hardest to explain. That is the ability to think critically. Many people expressed that they can think critically, and I would challenge that. It was not until I completed my MBA that I really began to think critically about health and safety. It changed the way I see the profession and the way that I perceive its future.
What tips do you have for new grads or those in entry level OHS positions who want to move up the ladder?
New graduates should have a good base of knowledge about health and safety. That knowledge is often incomplete as it’s not complemented by the experience. The advice I have for those who are new graduates or in entry level health and safety positions is to do a few things.
Seek out a mentor, or peer group. The health and safety profession can be a lonely one in that many companies have but a single health and safety person. New practitioners can find mentors or networking opportunities by becoming involved in local safety volunteer organization’s such as the CSSE. Safety people are often generous in sharing their experience in terms of successes and failures. You may not find a mentor in the traditional sense as it may be a group of people that help you develop as a professional.
Never stop learning. The safety profession is still evolving and still changing. Theories are being challenged, while new theories are being proposed. Our understanding of what is effective is also changing. In such a dynamic environment you cannot afford to stop learning.
The OHS field has been evolving. What changes excite you most?
One of the most exciting changes currently and in health and safety is the new CRST designation. I hope that this will allow BCRSP to reach out to the tens of thousands of practitioners in Canada. It is important that we try on a national and provincial level to engage those people already working in health and safety and show them a logical career path from entry level qualifications and training to higher level education and competencies.
I am also excited about the international movements, led by INSHPO, to standardize the competencies for the health and safety profession and really help define what it means to be a health and safety professional.
There are many who make a compelling argument that safety is not a profession. Whether they are right or wrong it does not matter as much as the efforts to show that the health and safety profession is a legitimate and important stakeholder in workplace health and safety We need to show the safety profession is a real stakeholder and contributor to the conversation about workplace health and safety. The profession needs a seat at the table when legislative changes are being considered, or when new safety standards are being written, and when new safety initiatives are being considered.
What’s the future of the OHS profession?
The future of the OHS profession is cloudy. There are hundreds of safety qualifications in North America alone. Some are credible, some are not. The OHS profession in Canada faces significant hurdles in that the legislative landscape is divided amongst the provinces, with only federal workplaces covered by national legislation.
I believe that in the short term the OHS profession will struggle for legitimate recognition and credibility. That is because there is a broad scope within the profession and many have had a great deal of success in exploiting small areas of the profession offering great results from dubious practices.
In the near in midterm I think that the discussion will really turn towards what a safety professional should do. That will be sparked by the competencies proposed by INSHPO and the Singapore Accord. We, in the OHS profession, do not get to dictate to companies what they will use their OHS professionals for. The result is that its OHS professionals do a wide variety of things and use a wide variety of approaches. Defining how a company can best benefit from the skill set of an OHS professional may dominate discussion in the future.
I believe the future of the OHS profession will see trained and educated professionals overseeing a system that provides the tools and resources for companies to execute their work safely. I think that we will see frontline OHS professionals handing back to supervisors some of those functions they have taken away from them. I like to term this a migration from “doing safety” to “facilitating safety.”
What do you do when you are not working?
I do a lot of things when I’m not working. Thankfully, during my MBA, I got out of the habit of watching television. I still watch television, but I don’t do it as much as I used to.
Those who know me know that I’m an avid Manchester United fan. I went to my first game with my grandfather when I was 4 years old. That was before I came to Canada. I also like to travel and had the opportunity to attend a game at old Trafford in 2017.
One of the more interesting things I do when I’m not working is that I write. Most people in the safety community know I’ve recently published a book, Effective Safety Committees. I have written several articles published in peer-reviewed international journals and I do write blogs on safety. That is one aspect of my writing.
In my other life I write military science fiction. I am just in the midst of publishing my third novel in the Globur Incursion series. This series is about humankind’s first contact with aliens and the ensuing conflict. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and publish a book. So, book 4 will be out next summer. That is the fourth book for in a 5 book series (I think).