FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Rob Stewart
May 2, 2017
Should we care about workplace injuries?
Is safety ignored in Alberta?
Too often it has been, notwithstanding many good corporate citizens who have policies and processes to keep their workers safe – but are they really? I’ve been learning some things …
I admit I didn’t know what SIF was. Do you? SIF means ‘serious injury and fatality’. Our SIF rate in Canada is 111/per million/per year. Higher in Alberta at 126/per million/per year – compared to 23/per million/per year in the UK. Got your attention now?
That announcement, made on April 28th – the National Day of Mourning – commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster.
When I asked Rob Stewart about these changes – he said, “I don’t want people to go to jail – I want people to change their practices”. A long discussion about ‘safety culture’ in Alberta was eye-opening for me, in particular how investigative practices by OH&S have focused on causes and remedies and consequences for responsible parties have been consequence-lite. That, it appears, is about to change.
I’ve never done a longer interview or made more notes – or learned as much from most people I’ve interviewed. Who is Rob Stewart? And why did I want to interview him? I was directed to him by Julie Hamilton whom I interviewed recently – she told me Rob was doing some breakthrough work on safety, on saving lives and reducing workplace injuries.
Rob describes himself several ways, not an indication of multiple-personalities, but rather a shifting landscape of a career outlook that keeps changing – sometimes behind the curve, but I sense more so, ahead of it. Consultative occupational psychology, psycho-social engineer to name a couple. His firm intactix employs a crack team of software, systems and safety gurus, like-minded he tells me in their quest to improve safety.
He self-describes himself as "quite disruptive, in the shadows”, he’s shifted from figuring out why people behave the way they do to a focus on safety. But first, let's go back to his beginning and learn why he never got to military college in Kingston.
Born in Kingston, Ontario the family moved to Sudbury where Rob did grade school in Sudbury but was diverted to St. Charles College for high school so he wouldn’t be in his dad’s classes. Dad was a teacher. Mom was a homemaker, Rob was number one of six children. Dad moved the family to Red Deer (he was working on his Ph.D in Education). Rob was in ‘the reserves’ through high school and had designs on military college at Kingston – but the move to Alberta and his mother’s wishes got in the way. He spent one trimester at my old school (Lindsay Thurber Composite), then Red Deer College, met Caroline – the future Mrs. Stewart, then to Calgary where he earned a B.A. in Psychology – and with a daughter on the way he needed a job. His 4.0 got him accepted in the Masters program – found work with Workers Compensation Board and found the work enlightening but ‘not as advertised’. He describes himself as “square peg in round hole” learning that the bureaucracy was the customer – rather than the worker. He sought a new career in policing – but didn’t fit the criteria, and his wife was not in favour; then WCB did a re-org, he took a package – and built a business plan. Several iterations of consultancy to businesses, developing scenario-based software … “it was all going rather well, but what about safety? I knew nothing about safety.”
He’s learned a lot, researched, written, went back to school, a two-year safety program at U of C – and he is currently doing his Ph.D. at University of Leicester in the UK where he’s earned his MSc. Along the way he learned, “people cared about safety – but they didn’t. People were not walking the talk because they’ve seen safety as a cost rather than as an investment. We debated whether to give the market what it wanted, or they need.” In 2006 Rob and his colleagues said, “let's be a safety think tank”. Rob said, “safety is killing people through learned helplessness”. Yes, there was some smoke coming out of his ears as he recounted anecdotes of absurdity that resulted in catastrophic injuries and unnecessary deaths – among them, Tim Hamilton, Julie’s son …
Rob applauds many companies from actually acting on research studies they’ve done – emphasizing it doesn’t take a lot of money or time to change, but that change needs to be driven by accountability – not just policy. I asked him if the province’s announcement will get attention, and action? “I certainly hope so …”. He is reluctant to talk on the record about OH&S or WCB – but I sensed he has too many stories of less than ideal outcomes. If you want to know more, ask him directly – I’m sure he’d be happy to help any company examining their processes with a view to preventing senseless injuries and fatalities.
He continues to do research, publish, work on his Ph.D. – and remains committed to better education on instilling safety culture wherever it is absent. Their software tools? “So far, we’re overproduced and under-delivered, but we are leaders in evaluating safety in real time. Things aren’t great yet, but we are right! I’m frustrated by a fundamental problem – how do I get people to care?”
Why is the UK doing so much better than we are? “Strong enforcement.” Maybe the Notley government’s policy shift will help. Seems like too many people are dying for change.
“Life is risky. I want people to take calculated risks …”
Why are you successful? “because I have great work/life balance. I’m very happy. There has been a lot of learning, at just the right time. As the old saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will come.”
What has held you back? “I wish I’d gone back to school sooner …”.
How do you see your business – safety culture and organizational excellence – going forward over the next quarter?
… I’m very satisfied with what we are doing – but as a society, not good enough, though I am hopeful.
And over the next five years?
… better safety, and SIFs will go down. We’ll see change in standards for safety as people ask, ‘what is the best cost effective way to implement change. I’ll continue to do more research while others do the day-to-day. I see strong growth for our company.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
... character, qualifications more than skills, people who really want to make a difference.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Rob Stewart and intactix, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… we can deliver. Delivering value and proving that safety pays, and saves horrific damage to people and their families.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… authentic. What they see is what they get – no pretense, no ego – I’m interested in better process, period.
… I do now – but I didn’t. Too much working flat out.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I used to worry about performance metrics, about people cheating … but I don’t worry about that so much anymore.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my parents saying ‘don’t go to Kingston’. My mother encouraging – instilling in me a need to give back to society. My brother being in a serious car mishap at age 12. Meeting my wife – she’s been a strong supportive influence.
… time with our grandson, hiking, biking.
What do you read?
… boring stuff mostly – research papers! Psychology books. And sci-fi.
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