Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What keeps workers safe?

I’ve spent many days enjoying the view of False Creek and the Roundhouse Community Centre from an apartment near the top of a residential tower in Vancouver’s Yaletown district. The stunning views of sparkling waters, emerald parks and gleaming residential towers are amazing. The natural beauty of the area has a lot to do with that but I can’t help but notice the thousands of workers that are involved in building and maintaining the structures, green spaces, waterways and infrastructure.
Recently, I’ve focused on the crews refurbishing the exterior decks and maintaining the rails on neighbouring towers. As I look down from the 26th floor, I can see the swing stages raise and lower workers to the various levels. What was keeping these workers safe on the job? There are standards in the regulation that apply but words on paper are not what keep these workers safe. So, what does?
Clearly, design is a big factor. The scaffolding and rigging are carefully designed to match the structure’s shape, secure and stabilize the scaffold, and minimize gaps through which a worker could fall. The guardrails and fall restraint systems are designed with worker protection in mind.

Design alone is not enough to keep these workers safe. For design to be effective there has to be safe work procedures. I watched as workers transferred their tethers, donned masks during grinding, descended during windy spells or approaching thunderstorms. Design and adherence to safe work procedures work together. But was that really what was keeping these workers safe?

I began to think about the human elements that were involved. These workers knew what they were doing. They appeared to be well trained, knew how to handle the work stage and the order in which things were to be done. Still, knowing what to do is only part of what was keeping the workers safe. Attitude plays a role, too.

Supervision was certainly present on the site. I observed interactions between workers and supervisors and, when the wind was blowing in the right direction, could overhear what was said. Safety-oriented content was often part of those conversations—not always the main point but usually part of the discussion. There was the occasional direction to check a cable or adjust a load but was supervision what kept these workers safe? Or was it a cultural thing—was it a strong safety culture that was really what was protecting these workers from harm?

The old locomotive turntable at the Roundhouse has now been equipped with a mechanical retractable canopy for shade and performances. At the rear of the canopy mechanism in meter-high letters are the words “Safety First”. Whether you interpret these words as an admonishment, a reminder or an aspiration, “safety first” fits well with what I see through the window: It is not one thing that keeps workers safe, it is all of these. Safeguards, barriers, and defences like training, supervision, design and safe work procedures are essential but a strong safety culture—putting safety first—is what keeps workers safe