Creating culture of health & safety takes commitment across University
By Karen Millard
The days of delegating the management of occupational health and safety to the ‘safety guy’, whom everyone takes pains to avoid, are over, says a Canadian authority on the subject.
Risk management consultant and University of Western Ontario law professor Peter Mercer told the U of S President’s Advisory Council May 4 that health and safety issues must be put in the larger context of risk management and taken much more seriously by universities.
He said in today’s research environments, risk can never be eliminated, but it must be assessed and effectively managed.
Mercer was on campus to speak to the Advisory Council and to a luncheon held the same day to show appreciation for the work done by members of the 22 local safety committees at the U of S. The activities were part of North American Occupational Safety & Health (NAOSH) Week.
“We’re on the cusp of a new era,” Mercer said, adding that today’s regulatory model is oriented towards the prevention of catastrophic loss and tends to view work-related illness and injury as normal and predictable. The model, he said, is showing signs of systemic failure as the associated costs of expensive benefit and compensation packages have begun to overwhelm organizations.
“You can no longer assume that disability is a normal cost of doing business.”
In the new era, Mercer said management practices must shift to the advancement of health and well-being. Regulations must continue to be enforced, but it’s important to move beyond that, to an enterprise-wide culture of safety and health.
Mercer acknowledged that enterprise-wide cultural change is often difficult. It can be particularly so in universities since the overriding culture is that of academic freedom and regulations are often seen as an impediment to that freedom.
“You must create an environment that influences behaviour,” Mercer said, “but it will take time.”
He said over the past 30 years, risk management has been becoming a higher priority. It is now a senior responsibility in organizations and is being built into all management systems.
Mercer said a move towards establishing an enterprise-wide health and safety culture must start at the top. Leaders must commit to change and follow through with education, frequent communication and empowerment of all those involved.
“You cannot make a cultural change in a university,” he stressed, “unless everyone involved feels like a participant in that change.” Finally, he said, ongoing reviews of effectiveness and results are critical.