Alumni At Home: Safety is a full-time job
When Jamie Hall [BSc/88, MBA/99] graduated from the Faculty of Engineering, he – like all Canadian-trained engineers – received an Iron Ring.
It’s a tradition that dates back to the early 1900s. A railway bridge, the Quebec Bridge over the lower Saint Lawrence River, collapsed under the weight of a locomotive loaded with steel, killing 75 people. While being fixed, a section of the bridge collapsed, bringing the death toll to 85.
The cause of the initial accident was determined to be an error of judgement on the part of the bridge’s engineers and, since then, iron rings are given to Canadian engineering graduates to symbolize humility and responsibility.
It’s a message that rings true to Hall, especially now in his current role as COO of SAFE Work Manitoba.
UM Today sat down with Hall to talk about safe workplaces and why he’s made it a priority to reach out to young workers.
I’M CURIOUS ABOUT THE LINK BETWEEN ENGINEERING AND SAFETY. IS THERE ONE?
The connection between engineering and safety is very well defined. In the Engineer’s and Geoscientists Act, it’s very clear about the responsibility we have as engineers for the safety of the public and workers. We have to think about the construction, the operation, or the maintenance of whatever we’re designing so that the safety of individuals who will be working in that system or on that piece of equipment is considered.
YOU BEGAN YOUR CAREER AS AN ELECTRICAL ENGINEER. WHY THE CHANGE TO WORKPLACE SAFETY?
The big change that led me down the path to safety was when I led a project at Manitoba Hydro that looked at how we can fundamentally change our safety performance.
At that time – this would have been in the late 90s – one of Hydro’s senior managers stood up at a meeting and said: “we have a history, for over a decade, that every second year someone dies as a result of work. In the years when someone isn’t killed, there’s a terrible accident where someone is injured for life. Are we satisfied with that system or do we change it?”
The resounding decision was that we need to change this. Leading that project really aligned well with my engineering side of using data to make decisions, draw hypotheses, and test the hypotheses. At the same time I was taking my MBA, so I also got to emphasize good management decisions.
WHAT KIND OF DATA ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
A lot of companies, for example, know how many claims they have but may not be aware of what caused them. Is there a commonality or are people being injured in a similar way? Digging deep into that kind of data is critically important.
IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, THERE WILL BE A LOT OF STUDENTS AND GRADUATES GOING INTO THE WORKFORCE. WHAT DOES THE DATA SAY ABOUT YOUNG WORKERS AND THEIR SAFETY?
We have a campaign going right now that’s based on research done between the Asper School of Business and the University of Regina. It looked at young workers and showed two things.
First of all, there’ll be a strong reluctance to speak up, even when they’re facing a hazard. For a variety of reasons: this is my first job, this is money I’m depending on, this is my measure of my independence from mom and dad. The expectation is that I should figure this out on my own. But when you have someone who’s not going to speak up, it short circuits any good work that the company has done to prevent injuries.
The second thing is that young people are motivated more by the paycheque than by the hazards they are facing. They will take a dangerous job if it pays a lot.
DID YOU EVER HAVE A JOB THAT, IN HINDSIGHT, WAS UNSAFE?
When I look back, yes. One summer I worked for a mason on brick houses. He hired me to chisel out all of the mortar between the bricks. There was a time when I got to the peak of the gable house I was working, and I was probably 20 to 25 feet above the ground on a very rickety scaffold that we had just used scrap materials to make it longer. I just remember the fear of working up there but I had to get it done – I was getting paid a lot and it was going to help me pay for university.
So yeah, I’ve been there. I also know that when I was young I’m not sure if I would have listened to a guy like me talking about safety!
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO STRESS THE IMPORTANCE OF SAFETY TO YOUNG WORKERS?
We know that it doesn’t matter your age: the time you’re most likely to be hurt is in your first month or two of work. Young people are starting new jobs all the time, so supervisors need to really be aware of this.
When you have a new person starting you almost have to say: “safety is so important that it’s a job requirement here. In this first week you’re going to have a whole new perspective than anyone else. You need to come to me with 10 hazards that you see and ask me how to resolve them.”
Flip it around and make it clear safety is that important. It’s a requirement on the job, not just a nice thing you say during orientation.
WITH YOUNG WORKERS, WE’RE TALKING AGES 15 to 24 SO THERE’S A ROLE PARENTS CAN PLAY TOO, RIGHT?
Yes, and that’s the other thing that makes it real for me right now: I have two teenagers. In this job, I’ve seen too many parents giving keynote speeches about how their child died on the job. One is too many; but I’ve seen lots. I wouldn’t hesitate to tell my son or daughter: “That job is not worth it. The likelihood of you being injured is too great and it’s not worth the rest of your life, either not being here or being injured in some permanent way.”
My daughter is 19 (she’s at the U of M) and she’s been promoted to Program Coordinator at Gimli Bible Camp for this summer. Thankfully, I don’t think it’s a dangerous job but last year we did have a young worker drown at a camp. When that happened, I talked to my daughter. I asked her: “What do you have for water safety? Obviously you’re very focused on making sure the campers are safe, but how are you safe? And how could you get into trouble?”
Anything you’re doing has risk associated with it. It’s not saying don’t get a job, but understand the hazards and make sure there’s a way to reduce your risk of injury from this hazard.
Some jobs are more dangerous than others. Check out Jamie Hall’s top four most dangerous occupations for young workers.