These days, workplace safety is a topic most businesses spend time thinking about. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Industry West sat down with Dave Speerbrecker, Director of Safety at Thyssen Mining Construction of Canada, to talk about how safety in the workplace has changed over his thirty-year career. Speerbrecker, affectionately known as “Safety Dave”, has seen the approach companies take to safety grow and evolve to the robust programs and policies we know today.
“When I began my career in safety, the idea of safety was mentioned in the orientation materials of a job and that was it,” says Speerbrecker. “Safety was important, but production took precedence in the mining industry.” That approach—production before safety—was definitely reflected in the number of lost time incidents on job sites. As time passed, it became apparent that safety needed to be addressed, and Speerbrecker became one of three safety coordinators in 1996. It was obvious that dealing with safety would lead to less lost time, and that would lead to more efficiency and more production.
Speerbrecker’s team grew as the work around safety management increased. On-site safety management was introduced, claims management was started, and the focus moved from reacting to incidents to proactive prevention. “We went from 41 lost time injuries to five in one year,” says Speerbrecker. “Preventing accidents before they happened was the key to our success.” The Thyssen team developed ongoing training and a comprehensive safety management plan.
By 1999, the company was not only complying with increasing legislation, but also moving into strategic emergency response management. “It was around this time we saw the industry really shift its views on safety,” says Speerbrecker. “Bids for work began to require safety statistics and information on safety performance.” Companies realized that safety is integral to work, and safety has a direct influence on the bottom line. “We have seen the growing influence of safety associations in the last 15 years. The industry is also paying attention to health care costs,” says Speerbrecker. “Thorough incident investigations, even on near-misses, have also addressed many issues and prevented further problems.”
Today, even with comprehensive safety policies, procedures and programs, there is no rest for safety managers like Speerbrecker. Many industries are on the cusp of major change with automation, virtual reality training and the legalization of cannabis. “We’re seeing more and more automation on sites all the time,” says Speerbrecker. “Driverless trucks are showing up now. Mining production is more and more automated. This is the new frontier for safety.” Now, Speerbrecker learning to train workers on equipment with proximity alerts and other new technology to ‘manage all the other new technology.’ Automation may mean less workers close to actual equipment, but it also means having workers that are alert and ready to manage the equipment from afar. “We’re also seeing the dawn of virtual reality in our training, so workers can experience dangerous situations and mitigate them, without actually being in danger,” says Speerbrecker. “The concept is great and now it’s a matter of deploying into the field successfully.”
Finally, October 17, 2018 created a brand-new industry in Canada, and another safety issue to be addressed on job sites. “While cannabis legalization is new to the public, it’s not a new issue for us,” says Speerbrecker. “We treat impairment from cannabis the same way we treat impairment from alcohol. Zero tolerance is the approach. Workers must be fit for duty at work, period.” Speerbrecker notes that as safety as grown in importance over time, so has the intolerance around impairment. “When once people may have covered for a friend at work, they don’t anymore,” he says. “People are also much better than their own self-checks. If they are not fit for work, they call in sick. They don’t risk their jobs.” While technology has yet to catch up to the legislation for instant testing, Speerbrecker doesn’t think cannabis will make much impact on the job. “Cannabis now is like cannabis on October 16, 2018. It’s not welcome on the job,” he adds.
As Speerbrecker and his team navigate the coming changes in workplace safety, he has some advice for companies thinking about their own safety programs. He says to start with educating your team from the very beginning. “Offer training in bite-sized chunks, so you don’t overwhelm them,” he says. Prepare yourself, and live what you train. Review safety regularly, and get advice when you need it. “There are many local safety associations and the WCB to provide guidance. Engage them, and build a good relationship,” advises Speerbrecker. And finally, he says that safety needs to be a priority not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of our lives. “Nothing is so important it can’t wait until tomorrow to prevent an injury,” he says.