Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
The Safety Evolution

In addressing the opening session at this year’s CHC Safety and Quality Summit in Vancouver, Bristow Group president/CEO Bill Chiles recalled entering the world of offshore oil exploration in the early 1970s, when missing limbs or digits were seen as rites of passage.


July 18, 2011
By Paul Dixon

Topics

In addressing the opening session at this year’s CHC Safety and Quality Summit in Vancouver, Bristow Group president/CEO Bill Chiles recalled entering the world of offshore oil exploration in the early 1970s, when missing limbs or digits were seen as rites of passage.

And if you look back over the past couple of hundred years, this was the prevailing attitude in just about every industry. You learned by doing, workers were often viewed as disposable and delays from death or injury in the workplace were seen as part of the cost of doing business. That’s the way it was, because that’s the way it had always been.

In the weeks after CHC, the Vancouver Sun ran a multi-page feature on how changes in attitude and safety culture had slashed the death rate in B.C.’s forestry sector. In 2005, 45 forestry workers were killed in workplace accidents across the province, against a 10-year average of 22 deaths. Just five years later, only six deaths occurred, the same as in 2009. Not a statistical blip, but the result of a number of interdependent events that led to a groundbreaking change in attitude. The provincial government made changes in workplace safety regulations, while management and unions joined forces to emphatically say there was no room for the risk culture that had been a way of life for decades. It was groundbreaking in a way, but when you look at what actually transpired, it was pretty simple. People stopped talking about safety and started doing about safety.

I spent most of my working years in public safety (police/fire/ambulance) and many of the issues that have come up in aviation safety in recent years were the same issues I had experienced in my previous life. It wasn’t long ago that the worth of a firefighter was measured by how much heat and smoke he could endure. Today, SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) is ubiquitous and advances in turnout gear provide a greater level of protection. Body armour for police officers was introduced in the ’70s, though at first many “old-timers” were reluctant to accept it under the “real men” argument. Forty years ago, as the concept of medical first response was introduced and the concept of paramedics emerged as a separate career path, there was little in the way of personal self-protection, such as gloves and masks – and body fluid precautions have taken on a whole new meaning.

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The biggest change in safety culture for first responders – and still a challenge in many jurisdictions – is the concept of operating emergency vehicles safely. There was a time when activating the red light and siren was seen as a licence to thrill and damned be anybody who didn’t get out of the way. Today, there are very strict policies for every police, fire and ambulance agency in the country, coupled with provincial traffic laws and civil court decisions requiring adherence to speed limits (generally no more than 20 km/h over posted limits), full stops at red lights before proceeding through, etc.

The reality is response times have not lengthened, but there has been a marked decrease in the number of crashes. It took a while, but people finally realized that when a police car, fire truck or ambulance en route to an emergency is involved in a crash, not only is the response to the initial incident delayed but also the new incident creates an even greater drain on resources.

The Vancouver Sun also carried a recent story highlighting an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on the issue of sleep-deprived doctors and the resulting impact on the quality of patient care. It’s not just about grinding interns and residents with 36-hour shifts to build “character”, but also doctors in practice who cling to the idea that working long hours on call is something to be proud of.

While limits are being placed on long intern shifts and residents can go without sleep, there are no restrictions on doctors once they’re out on their own. What’s disturbing is the pushback from a large number of established doctors who resist any change.

The changes in safety practices across a wide range of industries over the past 40 years or more have been as much a change in attitude as anything else. For far too long people clung to the idea that if that’s the way they had to learn their job, then that’s the way everyone else should have to do it. It took a few brave people to say it was wrong back then and even more wrong today. Once enough people could say that out loud, the rest was easy. Here’s hoping those in the aviation world continue their steadfast commitment to creating the highest safety standards possible – at all costs.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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