“That powerful, caring community spirit is critical to thriving in challenging times,” says Elizabeth Mills, President and CEO, Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, whose own home remained without power for several days. Like other Toronto communities, her neighbourhood gathered to help, offered to share generators, and explored ways in which to protect their properties from future storms. 

“Successful communities are built on the resilience of their residents,” she says. “The same principle applies to your workplace, your company and your people.  Employees are your greatest asset. Wouldn’t you want to ensure their safety?”

It begins, says Mills, with business owners recognizing the intrinsic value of their employees and seeing them as contributing members of a community. 

Many studies have shown that the best ideas for improving working environments come directly from employees. By working with them to seek out hazards and find solutions, business owners are also able to get employees more deeply invested in their business and its success. Research also shows that the relationship the employee has with their supervisor is a key driver in creating a healthy, safe and productive workplace. 

Going above and beyond the legislation

To take that leap is difficult for some companies who may be faced with the realities of just keeping one step ahead of the competition – so they think only of the bare legal minimum requirements, and don’t stop to plan around the “what-ifs.”

“Some companies we work with will start with the legislation,” says Mills. “They’ll launch their internal safety committees. They’ll prepare for inspections. They’ll even introduce individual measures. But that investment is not optimized if it operates in silos. The strength of any good workplace safety system is that it’s integrated, engages employees in identifying real hazards, puts checks and balances in place and, through collaboration, aligns resources to offset these risks.”

So why would companies want to move beyond simple legislative requirements and basic tactics to a more proactive model that supports a culture of workplace safety? 

“Safe work methods used to approach these public emergencies are products of decades of experience.”

“We’ve got metrics that show that an investment of one dollar in a workplace safety program will bring six times the return through improved employee engagement.”

It’s more efficient and effective in the long run, says Mills. Beyond the return on investment, it helps boost a company’s reputation as one that truly cares about its employees. It also ensures that all aspects of your business have been considered in terms of hazards – from your supply chain to your customer chain. Some companies will even require prospective vendors to be safety certified in order to do business with them.

“It only takes a little from each of us to develop communities that renew the spirit of caring. Just like the broad engagement undertaken across Canada by leaders, workers, unions, business and associations that led to Canada’s new standard on Psychological Health in the Workplace – an international first, made stronger through collaboration.”

Preparation is everything

It was clear from the response to the ice storm that plans existed to deal with massive power outages. Were there lessons learned? Yes. Could it have been worse? Yes. Why wasn’t it?

“Because people cared enough to plan and work together,” says Mills. 

That community spirit was palpable among thousands of intrepid power workers who came from across the Province and as far away as Manitoba to lend Toronto a hand. 

“We are very proud of the way our industry responded. Thousands of powerline technicians, utility arborists, call centre and customer service staff, system operators and others answered the call, many of them giving up their Christmas holidays to help restore power safely to hundreds of thousands of people — it’s what we do” says Don MacKinnon of the Power Workers’ Union.  “Electrical utility responses to widespread outages like the recent ice storm can seem chaotic to the onlooker but, in fact, the mobilization of the appropriately-skilled people and equipment to the problem areas and the safe work methods used to approach these public emergencies are products of decades of experience.” 

From Red Cross volunteers who helped set up warming stations to repair crews that joined Toronto Hydro from across Canada, the community bolstered its resilience by working together to ensure all Ontarians were put back on the grid as soon as possible and as safely as possible. 

Mills concludes, “Before a storm of safety issues hits your workplace, ask for help. Engage your employees, your suppliers and partners and your health and safety association in strengthening your workplace community and preventing potential disaster.”

Jana Manolakos