Safety and Compliance 101

A starter’s — or refresher’s — guide for the secondary wood processing industry

The wood industry is a constantly evolving one. Some of you might be newcomers to wood processing, or even to Canada. Others are industry veterans. Either way, knowledge of safety and compliance can be elusive. What do you have to know? Where do you go to know it? How do you stay up to date? What will it cost you not to know?

To help us find some answers to these questions, we talked to a few experts in the field. One of them is Yvonne O’Reilly, principal of O’Reilly Health and Safety Consulting and a Canadian registered safety professional. According to O’Reilly, the knowledge that is out there can sometimes seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

She says, “From both a general standpoint, and in terms of the specific wood industry, there can be a long list of things business owners need to know about safety compliance. However, even if you just have one or two employees, what you have to do is inform them of the hazards, demonstrate that you have assessed the hazards, ensure that the proper controls are in place, and that the employees are properly trained.”

Five employees or more

The number of employees a business has also tends to determine their health and safety requirements under the law. As with most things related to safety compliance in Canada, it can depend on the province in question. However, O’Reilly says that an important threshold tends to be five. In other words, once a business has five or more employees, that business can have more obligations.

As O’Reilly explains, “Once a company reaches that number, they have to start doings things like having written safety procedures in place or have a health and safety committee set up. But it’s important to understand that, regardless of how many employees you have, large or small, it’s still the employer’s obligation to make sure the employee is informed. Employers have to be proactive.”

In fact, asked to provide a general assessment of Canada’s health and safety requirements, O’Reilly believes they tend to place a great deal of responsibility on the employer. She says, “Basically, the employer has to know what the hazards are in their own shop. If they’re an expert in the field, they might be able to do this. If not, then perhaps an outside expert would be required.”

O’Reilly herself is an outside expert in the field of occupational health and safety. However, she says she often finds herself telling clients to look up the information themselves. She continues, “You know, I tell people that many provinces provide resources readily available on their websites. They can spend a little time reading up on this material, or they can pay me to do it. It’s ultimately up to the employer.”

Another of those outside experts in the field is Frank Keegan, an expert in safety training and compliance who has served numerous clients in the value-added wood industry. For Keegan, the prospect of small businesses doing it on their own can be a challenge. He says, “Sure, anyone can look up the standards. But knowing and understanding the standards can be like interpreting the highway traffic act. It can be a chore.”

Finding the standards

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is an example of the standards Keegan is talking about. They have a website. They have guides that can be purchased and downloaded. And these standards are often what are referred to as best practices in the various provincial health and safety regulations. However, provincial legislation can also deviate from the CSA, and learning how so can prove to be difficult.

Keegan explains, “Yes, it can be done. I’ve worked with people in the wood industry, and they’re certainly capable of learning the provincial codes that apply to their shop. But then the question they have to ask themselves is this: Do they have a month or two to engage in the process? Some may well have the time and inclination to get up to speed, but what about others? What do they do?”

It’s a good question. Keegan is a consultant in safety compliance, so it’s not surprising he would recommend people hire a safety trainer like himself. Nevertheless, whether it’s himself, O’Reilly, or someone else, Keegan is not apologetic about the value of experts in the field. He adds, “You know, for a business of 10 employees, this kind of training can cost about $1,000 a day. I think it’s a good investment if the alternative is paying penalties to the government of at least 10 times that.”

Which raises another good question when it comes to safety compliance: What are the costs and penalties of not complying? Like most topics in safety, there is no simple answer, but O’Reilly says there is a general practice on behalf of provincial inspectors.

According to O’Reilly, “They might first walk into your shop and try to educate you on some items still in need of compliance. They might well do this a few times and be satisfied that you’re at least making a goodwill effort to comply. I’ve rarely seen them issue orders or levy financial penalties right out of the gate. However, at some point, the employer has to get it right. And, depending on the violations, the penalties can ultimately be severe.”

Worker was killed

As an example of such severe penalties, O’Reilly points to an incident that occurred in 1999. David Ellis, a 17-year-old, was hired as a dough mixer by New Sun Cookies in Oakville, Ont. On the second day on the job, Ellis reached into a machine to remove some dough. He was pulled into the machine and received injuries that were ultimately fatal. O’Reilly says it was a watershed moment in Canadian occupational health and safety.

New Sun Cookies was found to be in violation for, among other things, not having issued written job instructions to Ellis, and for leaving him alone after not having been properly trained on the equipment. The supervisor was ultimately sent to jail, and the company itself was fined over $60,000. According to O’Reilly, “At the time, the Ministry of Labour warned the company, but did not follow-up. These days they’re far more willing to follow-up, issue orders, and assess fines.”

Such high profile occupational deaths always lead to intensified debates, and also often lead to stricter regulations. Last year, Wood Industry’s feature article on safety highlighted a construction accident that led to the deaths of four people on Christmas Eve. These deaths led to the creation of the Dean Report recommendations, many of which are now law in Ontario.

Although O’Reilly understands some of the fears employers have of more regulation and oversight, she also believes there can be some resulting benefits. “In my opinion, it’s all about communication. So, in Ontario, resources are easily available for employers to learn about safety compliance. Other provinces have some great resources, too. These resources would not be available without government action.”

Where to go?

O’Reilly provided us with a brief list of quick resources available for employers in the wood industry. Both WorkSafeBC and Work Safe Alberta provide specific guides for small businesses. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) has a list of safety provisions specifically for woodworking, as well as a guide for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS). Safe Work Manitoba has a guide on the health hazards of wood dust. The Ontario Ministry of Labour has a plan specific for the wood industry. Nova Scotia publishes a guide on rights and responsibilities of the employer.

One point O’Reilly emphasizes is the need for ongoing learning, which shouldn’t end once a business starts, but should only be the beginning. She says, “Employers should always keep themselves abreast of the latest regulations and trends in safety compliance. Start with these government websites. They lead to other resources. It can lead to the habit of getting knowledge and implementing proper measures, instead of always reacting after it’s too late.”

Keegan has another suggestion for small businesses to get themselves up to speed on compliance: getting together with other businesses. According to Keegan, “One small business facing the challenge of safety compliance can be overwhelming. They might not have the time to research the proper codes, or the money to hire the right consultants. But a pool of small businesses is another option.”

The kind of option Keegan is referring to is something he has established with small businesses in the concrete industry. Keegan explains, “Many of these companies have only a few employees, but they need to have the same safety programs as the big companies. So we’ve developed a training program where these small companies get together, get the training, and reduce the costs per company. It’s something businesses in the wood industry might want to consider.”

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