On January 31 of next year, Alberta businesses will no longer be required to have an occupational health and safety (OHS) committee at every worksite. This is fantastic news for all businesses as the requirement for these committees implemented by the NDP was onerous, expensive and didn’t really do a damn thing to increase safety at Alberta worksites. Given enough time, these committees could have cost untold millions or even billions as they create increasingly ridiculous and inefficient workplace regulations. Anybody who has worked in the oilfield in the last few decades knows just how absurd the red tape has become and all under the guise of safety.
State regulation of work sites has made North America one of the safest places on earth in which to work. Long gone are the days when people are commonly forced into working in unsafe conditions and the obligation for employees to speak up on safety issues is now applauded rather than shunned. There is always room to improve safety but the formation of thousands of pointless committees is not the way to do it.
The main problem with safety committees is that they begin their mandate as a solution looking for a problem. In any reasonable workplace, all major hazards for workers have been identified and addressed either through elimination or mitigation of risk through training and changes of workplace practices. When you form a committee to seek and address hazards in this kind of environment, they feel obligated to find something even if no realistic hazard exists. That’s when we see bizarre regulations coming about.
In the oilfield there has been an almost cult-like pursuit of safety within the industry. The justification has always been that we must regulate the hell out of ourselves or the state will shut us down. There is a fear bordering on hysteria on the part of management within energy companies about safety based liability. This has led to the creation of a monster that is never satisfied and creates endless efficiency killing rules and procedures while not really addressing real safety issues.
I am going to list a few examples from my own work experience over the years to demonstrate just how ridiculous and costly things have become. Talk to any person who has spent time in the oilfield or on large scale construction projects and I can assure you that they will all have many similar stories.
I spent over 20 years working as a surveyor on geophysical projects. We worked with explosives and we cut large trees at times which created hazards. We often worked in isolated areas where emergency services were not readily available. This required strong and comprehensive safety policies and practices of course. Over the years though, the safety department moved well past common sense and well into the ridiculous as they ran out of things to address.
I spent four winters working in the Arctic. We had an annual contract which would do seismic over the Mackenzie Delta region and right onto the frozen Beaufort Sea. It would require about 80 workers for about five months per year. In my first year up there, the initial project orientation for a worker starting up would take about 4 hours. They covered Arctic basics in dealing with issues such as extreme cold, thin ice, polar bears, etc. Common sense things. By my final season in the Arctic the orientation had become a two day affair. That works out to 160 person-days plus accommodations in Inuvik (very expensive rooms) for every project up there. All the real safety issues could be covered within a few hours so then workers were drilled on things as ridiculous as eating balanced diets, wiping front to back and holding role-playing sessions on possible safety scenarios. Utter waste of time.
While in camp in the Arctic we held a safety meeting every morning before heading to the field. These meetings bloated to an average of 40 minutes per day and they were so boring that most attendees would be lucky to retain even a minute of valuable information from the meeting. This was due to an utterly stupid hazard identification system. You see, every worker was tasked to write and turn in a hazard identification card every day no matter what. Each and every one of those cards was then read at the meeting. With 80 cards to read, half of the room was asleep by the tenth report of ice being slippery on the frozen ocean. Meanwhile, a real hazard or two gets lost in the mix of all that paperwork BS. I don’t need to hear 20 times per day that the dark creates a winter driving hazard in the Arctic but I really did want to hear about the polar bear activity spotted in my work area. Alas, I had nodded off before the committee head got to that card.
There were few things more dangerous in the Arctic than safety personnel with little to do. One luminary went out in the night and checked tire pressures on all the trucks. When you open a valve stem at -45 thermometer temperature, there is a high chance that the valve will get stuck open. What we then had was a morning with 20 trucks with flat tires. We then had to take off and bring those tires into the camp before filling them as they were frozen hard as rocks. The idiot’s justification? Safety of course.
The safety committee kept demanding larger and larger fire extinguishers in the camp. Then a committee member realized that our female workers couldn’t life these giant extinguishers which were every 20 feet in the camp. They then brought in dozens of smaller ones but found that we didn’t have enough mounts for these ones. They were placed on the floor. This camp was a multi-level affair built onto a barge and frozen into the ocean. One of the extinguishers was knocked over and rolled down a stairwell almost injuring a person coming up the stairs. Safety indeed.
On a program in the mountains North of Waterton National park, we had to use helicopters to access our work areas. This left an excess of safety people as they didn’t want to actually walk in the woods so they would roam the staging area. Some luminary on a safety committee had determined that short sleeve shirts were a hazard and we are all forced to wear long sleeves in the heat (which we all removed as soon as the helicopters dropped us off). A helicopter engineer was lounging in the staging area on a lawn chair. There was little for him to do once the crews were all out. Most of his work came in the early evening when he did maintenance on the helicopters. Well, the safety officers noted he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and swarmed him. He then folded his lawn chair, got in his truck, gave the safety gang the finger and went home. Having no heli-engineer was a safety hazard. We then had to fly 25 crews back in from the mountains six hours early at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Feel safer yet?
This problem isn’t just a Canadian thing. While in Texas I did a lot of shopping. Somebody on a safety committee determined that our plastic fuel cans presented a static spark hazard. It took forever to find old fashioned metal ones for my crews. A new safety guy arrived and determined that the metal cans presented a leaking hazard and demanded I replace them with plastic ones. It took all my restraint to keep from pouring the gasoline down his unctuous throat.
Workplace safety is terribly important. Prior generations suffered under some unimaginable conditions as they tried to scrape out a living with little to no regulations for their well being. We never want to go back to those days but we have to get to a point where we can say: “I think things are safe enough.” When we keep forming committees tasked with finding problems that don’t exist, we only create red tape and ironically often make things even more unsafe.
Nobody has been made less safe with the removal of the NDP requirement for thousands of safety committees around the province. What we have seen is a great step among what I hope are many in making Alberta a good place to do business in again.