Beyond the rules: Moving safety from compliance to competence

Journal of Commerce | OH&S |  PETER CAULFIELD | 

Despite binders of rules and regulations aimed at making work safer, Canada still has a workplace safety problem, says Janet Lane, director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation (CWF) in Calgary. What to do about it?

One approach is to legislate every possible safety issue and to monitor constantly every workplace for infractions.

But there is a better way, says Lane, who lays out her suggestions in a recently published CWF report called Beyond the Rules: Moving safety from compliance to competence.

“First, follow all the rules, and then go beyond them by ensuring workers are competent to do the work to which they are assigned,” said Lane.

Lane calls the concept, which leverages the connection between workplace safety and productivity, “competency-based workforce development and deployment.”

“It requires not just knowing something, but knowing how to do it,” she said.

Waiward Steel LP, a company in Edmonton that provides engineering, drafting, fabrication and construction services, implemented such a competency program in 2013.

Since then it has significantly reduced the number of lost time claims.  And it did it, Lane says, without jeopardizing its relationship with its union or the profitability of its business.

This good news, however, was preceded by four serious safety incidents that Waiward suffered between 2010 and 2012.

After taking stock of the situation, Waiward worked with its union to design and implement a competency program for its workforce.

It identified the respective competencies for each task. And it established standards and objective assessment criteria so that workers’ competencies can be assessed by their supervisors’ observation.

If there any gaps in competence between what workers should be able to do and what they can actually do, most are filled by on-the-job training.

The program includes a database and software to help manage the competencies of the company’s workforce. Lane says Waiward has improved its safety record, processes and procedures to the point where it is now offering its competency program to other firms and unions.

In her report, Lane includes a check-list of recommendations to make Canada’s workplaces safe:

  • Employers should adopt a competency approach to workforce development and deployment. It should include assessing workers for competence by observing their work on the job, and then filling training gaps as soon as possible.
  • Unions should, where possible, work with employers to implement workplace competency programs.
  • When individual workers feel less than fully competent, they should be encouraged to request the training they need.
  • Canada should build and implement a system of competency frameworks for all jobs, including standards for competence and criteria for assessing competence in the tasks and sub-tasks of those jobs.
  • Employers should contribute their knowledge about the tasks and sub-tasks of the jobs on their work sites to the development of a pan-Canadian competency framework for their sector.

“Canada West Foundation has started putting together a team and getting the funding to set up such a framework,” said Lane.

Although optimistic about the prospects for competency-based training, Lane is realistic about the obstacles it faces.

“It’s a new idea and it will take time for the industry to adjust to it,” she said.

“The work world is still using credentials as proxies for competency, and it will need to undergo a culture shift before any new ways are accepted.”

Mike McKenna, executive director of the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA), says he not only supports the report’s approach, he’s taking part in a similar initiative.

The BCCSA will be applying to an accreditation agency to have a new standard that has been proposed for concrete pump operators undergo a third-party audit to achieve ISO certification.

“The new proposed standard includes the addition of qualifications for pump operators in both written and competency testing, and additional operator roles and responsibilities,” said McKenna.

Reflecting on what he calls the construction safety industry, Jeff Lyth, a Vancouver-based consultant and self-styled safety heretic, says it focuses too much on the negative.

“Most work places are safer than ever, but the safety industry magnifies any injuries that occur,” Lyth said. “Safety shouldn’t be measured just by the incidence of injuries. Whether or not workers are really safe isn’t accurately reflected solely by the number of insurance claims.”

Lyth says the safety industry, and the organizations it serves, should look at safety as multidimensional.

“Safety is more than the absence of injuries,” he said. “It is also the presence of positive capacity, measured by such characteristics as awareness of risk, communication, innovation, improvement and productivity, all of which enable an organization to be strong and resilient, as well as safe.”