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McGill's health and safety policies are being restructured, following a report by Water and Earth Sciences Associates (WESA) of Ottawa, a private environmental audit firm hired by the university. McGill scored 42 out of a possible 100 points on the audit, which was conducted last summer.
The audit tool — a public domain system developed by the government of Alberta — was not designed for an organization as decentralized as McGill. The auditors gathered their information using a combination of interviews, site visits and document inspections.
The audit evaluated eight elements of McGill's health and safety environment: management leadership and organizational commitment, hazard identification and assessment, hazard control, ongoing inspections, qualifications orientation and training, emergency response, accident and incident investigation and program administration.
Morty Yalovsky, vice-principal (administration and finance), said that according to the consultant the low score is well within the range of institutions using this audit tool for the first time (25 to 50), and it does not tell the whole story of the health and safety environment at McGill.
"The scores can't be looked at as an accurate measure of our performance. In some ways we did not do very well; for example, in terms of having documentation. One of the questions asked of supervisors and managers was whether specific health and safety standards have been written for their positions, and the answer was no. But generally the managers were aware of their health and safety responsibilities," he said, adding that changes made since the audit were initiated would have already improved McGill's score.
The audit was a result of a motion to Senate last year sponsored by Bernard Robaire, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, and seconded by Yalovsky. Robaire said that the air quality concerns in the McIntyre Building and other buildings on campus led to the resolution, which called for a comprehensive review of the design of the university health and safety structure, an assessment of both McGill campuses' level of potential risk and development of a blueprint for the implementation of detailed audits based on the risk.
Robaire said that the audit only addresses the first part of the motion, pertaining to the processes by which problems are identified and reported. He said a thorough risk assessment is what the McGill community really needs. (Yalovsky said that he will report to Senate in April on what the university is planning in terms of conducting the risk assessment.)
"To me, the central issue has always been what are our problems, which buildings have problems and how are we going to solve them. Tell us what they are, tell us what the cost is... If you don't tell us we can't help."
Robaire did say that already in the McIntyre building, where he works, he has noticed positive changes in how health and safety issues are dealt with.
The scores for the eight elements examined in the audit were far from uniform. While McGill scored only 19 percent for management leadership and organizational commitment, the university rated 94 percent for emergency preparedness.
Wayne Wood, manager of the Environmental Safety Office, said that he believes that the audit results were reasonably accurate assessments of McGill's strengths and weaknesses.
"The results are somewhat ironic — our best score is in the area of emergency response. In other words, we might not be fully up to par in respect to prevention, but when emergencies happen we're pretty good at managing them," said Wood.
According to the audit tool, working in a safe environment and following proper safety procedures is not enough to score well. Wood explained that full points would only be awarded if there was a clear policy, the relevant people were aware of the policy and they were following that policy.
WESA was not poking around looking for badly maintained firehoses or out-of-date first aid kits.
"Those are more elements of an inspection. An audit would look at whether you have a system in place to check the firehoses, or to address air quality issues. Another way to look at it is that an inspection might identify the symptoms, whereas as an audit looks at the overall health of the system."
The low score for managerial support can easily be rectified, and steps have already been taken in that direction. A Joint Advisory Health and Safety Committee has been formed, which advises and reports to Yalovsky. With better reporting of health and safety issues to senior administration, problems can be communicated before they occur.
Yalovsky said that getting the right people involved in the process will go a long way to ensuring that health and safety issues are addressed properly by the university, which is why he will be chairing the joint committee himself. Communication of the importance of the issue is key.
"It's an aspect that affects every one of our sectors, whether it's students, academics or administration. And this is something we have to be very strong in communicating very consistently and systematically," he said.
Another problem that was identified by WESA was a lack of clarity in terms of who is responsible for what. Professors running labs do not see always themselves as employers, and often feel that health and safety issues are the responsibility of the university. Many believed that the Environmental Safety Office is responsible for enforcing health and safety standards, when in fact its role is largely an advisory one.
"Our mandate has been the source of much confusion — it hasn't been well communicated," conceded Wood.
"But the same goes for the health and safety responsibilities of the people within the McGill community."
In addition to the joint committee, those departments that operate with hazardous materials or in potentially dangerous environments are now being required to set up departmental-level health and safety committees. The new University Laboratory Safety Committee is the result of the harmonization of radiation and biohazard safety committees.
All of these measures should go some length toward correcting audit-identified deficiencies in overall communication and program administration. Other areas such as training and accident and incident investigation will be examined in the coming months.
In the long term, the university needs to incorporate health and safety issues not as a priority that can change, but as a value that colours everything from research projects to building design.
"Good safety programs are supported from the top down and driven from the ground up," said Wood, "The most important thing is to empower those who have responsibility for health and safety."
Yalovsky said that the audit was only a first step in what will be a long process to improve McGill's health and safety practices. The joint committee is already at work on the issue.
"We're coming up with a priority list in terms of what are the steps we think are most important and what time frame are we looking at to implement them, knowing full well that this is going to take additional resources."