Fire Fighting in Canada

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Between Alarms: Compromising safety not worth the risk

There are times when fire-service personnel are working in conditions that require split-second decisions, when the lives of others can hang in the balance of our actions. Most provincial occupational health and safety regulations include a few exemptions for emergency services when working at heights or in confined spaces.

December 11, 2007
By Vern Elliott

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vernelliottThere are times when fire-service personnel are working in conditions that require split-second decisions, when the lives of others can hang in the balance of our actions. Most provincial occupational health and safety regulations include a few exemptions for emergency services when working at heights or in confined spaces. This is because we sometimes have to use techniques or equipment that do not meet regulations. Safety is a bit of an incongruity in emergency services because often we have to accept great risk to accomplish our goals. First responders sometimes overlook the hazards because of the reward but do we occasionally allow this lack of caution to find its way into everyday work life? If so, how can we re-establish a safe culture on the floor?

Most large industrial companies offer their employees hours of safety training and bonuses for hours worked without a lost-time accident. These organizations usually retain a team of professionals who analyze the safety of the workplace. These professional safety representatives observe the workplace, develop procedures and investigate incidents. They also communicate with management and employees about what they are analyzing, what information they are obtaining and offer advice on how to keep the workplace relatively incident free.

Basically, large industrial corporations invest a great deal of money to minimize hazards and maximize safety because safe companies receive rebates, procure more contracts and pay less in compensation. Safe companies generate more earnings.

Emergency services do not have the budgets of multi-million-dollar companies and they do not generate more money by being safer, but they can benefit from these kinds of safe-work practices. Most fire departments retain an occupational health and safety supervisor and a committee whose members usually hold other titles within the department. The supervisor and the committee members investigate incidents and communicate findings to the rest of the department, if their positions and time allow. Department members read these notices and, sometimes, change occurs within the department but what can we do to help these safety committees along? We want to change behaviour in regard to safety and to do that we must show that working safely generates rewards. The rewards can be recognition or tangible objects, whatever works for your department. Another reward is the fact the workplace is less dangerous and employees are returning home with the same limbs they went to work with.

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Two processes that can help to change behaviour are job-safety analyses and toolbox talks (or tailboard talks).

Job-safety analysis involves the workers who are performing the task, supervisors and safety representatives. Generally, these people meet and consider each step of the task at hand. Every effort is made to identify hazards and how they can be controlled. It is amazing some of the items that are acknowledged and then controlled with this process! Examples of this can vary from the obvious such as checking equipment before use to the infrequently used practice of looking for secondary means of egress.

The tailboard meeting is an impromptu talk, usually at the beginning of the day, during which a safety rep or supervisor provides feedback on recent safety issues that have been identified and addressed, recent incident-investigation findings or hazard discovery, or speaks briefly about a safety issue that is constantly resurfacing. We can use these planning sessions to practise safe-work practices in a controlled environment where we can develop safe behaviours.

We can use the job-safety analysis for everything we do around the department from training to maintenance. Before proceeding with a session, try looking at every aspect of the task from start to finish and see how many safety concerns arise. Initially, the process takes a bit of time but with practice you will discover that members will look at tasks in a whole new light. Hopefully, you will also see marked improvement during incidents.

There are provincial occupational health and safety regulations that can provide you with the basics as well as the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety but it’s also worth having a look at what large corporate companies are doing. Most large corporate companies are more than willing to discuss their safe-work plans and practices. Provincial regulations are easily accessible from either the Internet or by contacting the provincial labour department. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety maintains an excellent website – www.ccohs.ca – for gathering information about safe-work planning.

Safety has become a fundamental aspect of emergency services because we work in dangerous environments at times. To better serve our families, the departments and the people we assist, safe-work practices must become part of our everyday work habits and behaviours.

Vern Elliott has 14 years’ experience in emergency services within municipal and industrial departments as a firefighter/paramedic. He currently works with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta.


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